Carlebach’s Broken Mirror
Shlomo Carlebach, who died 18 years ago this week, was a reflection of the pain of post-Holocaust Jewry
“Jerry Garcia never existed,” an academic colleague and fellow Deadhead once told me. “He was merely the figment of Robert Hunter’s imagination.” Robert Hunter, of course, was the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and many of the words and the persona that we associate with Garcia—the bearded “rebbe” of the counter-culture, in his simple black T-shirt and Cheshire grin—were Hunter’s inventions. When we remember Jerry Garcia, we remember the myth that Robert Hunter made, and that Garcia enacted.
This dynamic comes to mind when I think about Shlomo Carlebach, especially this week, as we commemorate his 18th yahrzeit. There are some individuals, such as the Baal Shem Tov, who become myths after they are gone, and others whose lives and the myth surrounding them overlap such that the person loses historical relevance. If this sounds flaky, or fantastical, it is because it is. But that is the way myths are; they become ciphers, mirrors, for all whom they touch.
Shlomo Carlebach was a man, a husband, father, friend, itinerant preacher. But that is not the Carlebach that most of his admirers remember. Most remember him as a mirror: They saw in him what they wanted him to be, or what they imagined themselves to be. There is a teaching from Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, on the biblical verse, Whenever Moses went out to the Tent, all the people would rise and stand … and gaze after Moses until he went to the Tent. (Exodus 33.8). “Everyone sees himself in the righteous one (zaddik),” Dov Baer wrote. “Therefore, they suspected Moses was guilty of adultery (since he had separated from his wife). But in fact it was they who were guilty [of adultery] with the mixed multitude. [When they gazed at Moses] they saw themselves in the zaddik and thus suspected him.” Rabbi Dov Baer suggests this is the core, and tragedy, of a leader: His (or her) selfhood is lost in the aspirations, expectations, and limitations of those “who gaze upon him.”
Who, then, was Shlomo Carlebach? He was a broken man who embodied a broken people. He was a hopeful man who served as a mirror for members of the post-Holocaust generation that desperately needed to believe in the future. He was the rebbe of brokenness and hope.
Carlebach’s doubleness is embodied in the two central figures who influenced his thinking: Nahman of Bratslav, the genius of brokenness; and Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Ishbitz, the teacher of hope. Nahman stood like few others on the “narrow bridge” between “fire and ice.” For him it was only faith, in all is absurdity, that saved us from the abyss. And it was Mordecai Joseph Leiner who questioned divine will in light of human desire. In Leiner’s radical teaching, Shlomo found a crevasse where the human can protest against the norms of reality; where we can act for the sake of heaven against the raging machine of our fated existence. In Nahman, Shlomo found the paradox of faith in a broken world. In Mordechai Joseph, he found holy sanction for protest.
Shlomo was talking to two very different communities and, in doing so, brought them together in fascinating ways. The first was the generation of Holocaust survivors, people who survived the darkness of evil only to have to live out their lives in the darkness of despair. To them he gave Nahman and affirmed that the world gives little reason to live except for the narrow bridge on which we all stand. To the next generation, the generation of what he called “holy hippies” he gave Mordecai Joseph’s sanction to protest (“God wants your heart”) and then listen to it, even if it may sometimes bring you to fight truth to power, political or religious. These are two communities that in principle stand in opposition to one another: the survivors who ask for continuity, and the hippies who protest for change. For both of them, Shlomo was their narrow bridge; he showed each how they needed the another. The generation of survivors needed to see that while the Holocaust broke the spirit of the Jewish people, the spiritual vocation of the next generation was not survival but renewal.
In doing this double work, Carlebach’s own personhood was erased in the shadows of hagiography. But this was mostly his own doing. He was one of those charismatics who could only really be intimate in large crowds. Everyone felt they knew him because in some sense they “gazed at him”—and saw themselves. His tragedy, like the tragedy of Moses, is that no one knew him because he sacrificed his own opportunity to know himself in order to be a mirror for others. Or, perhaps, he absorbed so much hurt that he needed others to see themselves through him to ease his own pain.
He told fantastical stories about a prewar Jewish world that never existed. He knew that. We knew that. But it didn’t matter. His friend and colleague Zalman Schachter-Shalomi called Shlomo “The Master of Virtuous Reality.” The colorful and fantastical characters in his stories became interchangeable with the teller of those stories. “Black Wolf,” “Yossele the Holy Miser,” “Moshele the Ganev”—they were all refracted images of Shlomo. That’s why they were so convincing. That is why they were so real. Through his imagination he represented a postwar remnant of a lost world of oral culture, of bygone days when inspirational teachers traveled the dirt roads between towns and villages taking small sums of money to preach in synagogues across Eastern Europe. While he took jumbo jets (he often recounted proudly flying on the Concorde), he largely lived and died the life of those lost itinerants, again and again. Night after night.
But Shlomo was more than simply a weaver of “virtuous reality.” He changed the way many Jews related to their tradition and their world, arguably something that only an itinerant—whose fleeting influence carries its own power—can accomplish. He seemed unable, or unwilling, to remain in one place; he was lost as easily as discovered, he passionately advocated a strong commitment to tradition just as easily as he advocated a passionate call for change. This fleeting quality also marked the inconsistency of his thought. He was a defender of tradition who was also iconoclast, someone who took two seemingly disparate worlds (Eastern European Hasidism and the American counter-culture) and made them one, so much so that today we unconsciously view one through the lens of the other.
Shlomo created for his listeners a vision of old-world Hasidism that was unapologetic yet inoffensive, a Hasidism that was as ahistorical as he was, a fantastical world he constructed in his fertile imagination. Shlomo brought many souls back to “traditional” Judaism by making Judaism untraditional. Hasidism was arguably for a short period of time a rebellious and nonconformist protest movement against rabbinic Judaism in Eastern Europe, but it had long ago conformed to the dictates of rabbinic authority and by the 20th century, it was quiet, conservative, even reactionary. But Shlomo, himself a product not of Eastern Europe but of German Orthodoxy, embraced what he believed was Hasidism’s rebellious inner voice. He let the American counter-culture serve as the frame and his idiosyncratic vision of Hasidism as the substance of his new American Jewish piety. In short, he turned Judaism inside out.
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