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Consumed by Fire

Remembering life in Shlomo Carlebach’s Israeli moshav, now engulfed in flames

Shaul Magid
May 26, 2019
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Houses badly damaged by fire amid an extreme heat wave are pictured in the village of Mevo Modi'im, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Houses badly damaged by fire amid an extreme heat wave are pictured in the village of Mevo Modi'im, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s a Shlomo Shabbos.” Anyone living in Israel in the 1980s and early 1990s who was part of the religious counterculture, from wayward Haredim in Jerusalem to hippies in Pardes Chana, knew what that meant. It meant that Shlomo Carlebach would be on Moshav Me’or Modiim for Shabbat, a frequent event that would attract a plethora of Jews (and some non-Jews) to an impromptu Shabbat retreat. By Friday afternoon people began arriving, in cars, vans, taxis, hitchhiking and on foot, looking for a place to crash, often setting up tents in backyards and the nearby Ben Shemen forest that buttressed the moshav. Later on, guesthouses were established to house the fellow travelers for a small fee. It was a kind of bimonthly mini-Woodstock with only one musical performance, Shlomo davening.

Those Shabbosim had the feel of a combination of an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, a Roman Vishniac photograph, a Marc Chagall painting, and San Francisco’s Summer of Love. Through his davening, storytelling, and teaching, Shlomo was the center of an orbit of celebration and mayhem. If you were lucky, you got a corner on the floor of a Moshav member’s house to sleep, and the dining hall provided organic food for collective meals. Hasidim mingled with backpackers, children played happily unattended, and the smell of marijuana drifted through the ancient ruins of the Maccabees. It had the feel of a pilgrimage. For us, it was just “a Shlomo Shabbos.”

Moshav Me’or Modiim burned to the ground last week, on Lag B’Omer. What remains are burned-out houses, charred cars, scorched earth, and the remnants of a collective community. In recent years, much of the discussion of Carlebach’s legacy has centered around his inappropriate behavior toward women. And rightly so. But today we are reminded how his legacy also stretched to the community around him—a community that took on a life of its own in Moshav Modiim, a place vibrant with visitors but also families, houses, and entwined lives. It was a place where children were raised, people fell in and out of love, Torah was studied, and friends were mourned. Great people are often tragic, driven by their own demons, and their charisma can be destructive. But the places and communities they inspire can transcend them. “The moshav” was such a place.

Moshav Modiim was founded by a small group of disciples of Shlomo Carlebach in 1975, some of whom were part of his House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco. When they approached the Jewish Agency stating their desire to start a collective commune (a Moshav Shitufi) founded on the spiritual vision of their counter-cultural “rebbe,” the Israeli authorities were mostly bemused by this band of American hippies, thinking they would never succeed. Perhaps partly as a joke, they gave them a small abandoned moshav in disrepair on a road that literally led nowhere, buttressing the Ben Shemen forest near the town of Lod. In 1979, I started hanging around what was even then simply called “the moshav.” It was a bleak place. Houses were unfinished, with little or no heat; there was only one phone, often broken; the land was rocky, the winters windy and cold, and the summers unbearably hot. Yet this small band of romantics were determined. They began an organic granola factory and began making tofu to sell in what was then a very small health food market. They were often viewed by hard-nosed Israelis as quaint American hippies living a fantasy. It would not last long.

But the real purpose of the moshav was to create a rural “back to the land” spiritual community around Shlomo’s vision of an Eastern European shtetl that “turned on, tuned in, and dropped out.” He would visit infrequently in those years, and even when he did in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the hevra in Israel was still quite modest. People struggled. Many had little money and no marketable skills. Many barely knew Hebrew. The chances of them succeeding in Israel was minimal. But the skeptics did not quite realize what “the hevra” was about. These were not your average upper-middle-class American Jews coming to Israel for a joyride to then return to the comfort of their affluent lives. These were self-styled spiritual revolutionaries—artists, musicians, craftspeople, midwives, writers, yoga instructors, and poets. Many had left the comforts of their homes to join the counterculture in America and discovered Judaism through Shlomo. The came already living off the grid. I know because I was one of them, although I came a bit late to the party. I first met Shlomo in the late 1970s at a Shabbat Retreat with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi at the Freedom Farm outside Philadelphia although I had heard about him before. I soon moved to Israel to study in yeshiva and met hevra who brought me to the moshav when it was just beginning. In our early 20s, we were a bit younger than many of the moshavniks at the time, and many served as mentors to us as we made our way through the labyrinth of the Israeli Haredi and neo-Haredi world. I remember making granola while we reviewed Hasidic stories or homilies as we worked. I felt I had found a home. Or a fantasy. In those years there was little difference.

Those of us inspired by Shlomo all have their stories, and I will not rehearse mine. This is about the moshav. I moved with my then-wife, Penina, and young children to the moshav in 1985, and lived there until the end of 1989. These were halcyon years in the life on “the moshav.” Shlomo was around a great deal. The moshav had laid down roots. Businesses flourished in “the moshav” kind of way, and it became a center of “Shlomo” events. The moshav began hosting festivals for Passover and Sukkot, and instituted a Carlebach retreat center for Jewish music, art, and crafts. It was the beginning of the commodification of Shlomo, albeit done in a way that still retained an openness and “freakiness” that was part of its charm. Proving the administrative skeptics wrong, “the moshav” made it. More than that, it became a historic part of late 20th-century Judaism. And now it is in ashes.

So as not to romanticize a complicated community, I should stress that there were many fissures and problems, including affairs, divorces, petty crime, infighting, and children who could not easily acclimate to Israeli society (many attended school in Lod, at that time an impoverished and troubled development town). One of the problems with the expansive hevra, and Shlomo’s inability or unwillingness to draw boundaries (in many regards), is that the moshav attracted some nefarious and deeply troubled characters, people who were marginalized elsewhere but felt included in the ethos of the counterculture. All too often, such ostensible hevra took advantage of members.

The moshav’s Judaism was a strange amalgam with contradictory affiliations. It had a vexed relationship with the secular world and American culture in general. It was really a special kind of American-Israeli countercultural synthesis long after the American counterculture disappeared. Over time, some members moved more toward the conventional Haredi world, others became less religious, and still others retained a countercultural religiosity in some idiosyncratic form. Yet they all remained Carlbachean. In my experience, even though differences existed and even increased over time (my own political views were certainly not the norm), the sense of purpose promulgated by Shlomo, both real and imagined, kept the hevra together and enabled the moshav to grow in stature and influence. By the late 1980s until today, when young American tourists visit Israel they are often asked, “Did you visit the moshav?”

After Shlomo’s passing in 1994, the moshav went into a transitional phase. It began to erect a center in his memory. His house on the moshav remained intact, and it became a kind of Carlebach “mecca” and a museum with many of his books and memorabilia. That house, too, was consumed in fire. In addition, the moshav had to confront serious financial challenges and began to expand, whereby its collective ethos yielded to a general Israeli phase of privatization. Many new homes were built by those with only marginal connection to the original telos of the moshav. The new city of Modiin (on land that used to house a Bedouin camp when I lived there) made the area much more attractive. A new road that bypassed the three Arab villages we used to drive through to get to Jerusalem enabled the area to become a pricey suburb where one could easily commute to either Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But even given the fact that the moshav was now sitting on a gold mine, it largely remained the place that time forgot. And that was a good thing. The original members who remained were doggedly dedicated to their countercultural vision of Jewish life and practice, many identifying more with the rebellious Maccabees who once dwelled in those hills than the upwardly mobile Israelis who wanted a suburban escape from their city jobs. When I first arrived in 1979, there were only a handful of families. When I lived there in the 1980s, there were 28 houses. By 2019, there over about 60 houses.

While mourning the destruction of a place is different than mourning the loss of a person, there may be more similarity than one thinks. When I was telling my mother, who had often visited us when we lived on the moshav, about this tragedy, she responded laconically that “it is the end of a way of life.” I pondered her comment long after our conversation. I had never quite thought of the moshav that way–“a way of life”–in part because I was so immersed in it I could not quite see outside it. But for someone like her, an outsider, who periodically entered as a visitor, what she saw was not only a community but “a way of life.” And indeed it was.

That ragtag group of dreamers in 1975, “tuned in and turned on” by Shlomo’s fusion of an imagined Eastern Europe and the American counterculture, driven by an equally imagined vision of Erez Yisrael renewed and what he called “The Holy Temple” (less the place than the idea), created “a way of life.” And in a way, that way of life went up in flames and is now no more. Me’or Modiim can be rebuilt. But it is not at all clear it will continue to “the moshav.” The flames not only destroyed the homes of people who dedicated their lives to renew Judaism, it also took with it the spirit of rebellion and the sheer will of an unlikely garin (core group) to alter the Israeli landscape.

There is something tragically ironic about this fire on Lag B’Omer, a day that tradition tells us is the yahrzeit of Shimon bar Yohai, the mystical folk hero and student of Rabbi Akiva, marking the end of a plague that had claimed the lives of so many Jews in the second century CE. Fire literally engulfs stories about both masters. Rabbi Akiva is consumed in fire by the Romans in defiance of the prohibition of studying Torah, and when R. Shimon’s son Eliezer emerged from a cave studying Torah’s esoteric wisdom for years with his father, his mere gaze consumed a hapless farmer in flames. The Talmud tells us that Eliezer’s passion could not tolerate the mundanities of the world. It was then decreed he return to the cave until which time he could integrate the loftiness of those secrets with the quotidian acts of a simple man.

Moshav Modiim was an interesting combination of the ideals expressed in these two stories. Shlomo’s Judaism as embodied in “the moshav” was one of defiance of normative Jewish life—not a rejection but a defiance of the mundane qualities that often plague religious practice. It often broke the shell in search of finding the seed, imagining how Judaism can look and feel different. Shlomo often referred to someone who was absorbed in devotion and study by saying “he’s on fire.” This is not an uncommon metaphor in Hasidic circles but, given this tragedy, a telling one nonetheless. In terms of Eliezer, son of Shimon, one of the emblematic things about “the moshav” was how it envisioned itself as a de-urbanized “back to the garden” Judaism. Many of its members wanted to work the land and live outside the trappings of city life. In a sense, they tried to embody both Eliezer and the farmer gathering his crop, to burn with the fire of Torah and plant seeds to harvest the fruits of the land.

It is interesting to recall that the original name of the moshav was Mevo Modiim (the Entrance to Modiim), indicating its location as an entry point to Ezor Modiim (the Modiim Region). But its members petitioned to change the name to Me’or Modiim (the Light of Modiim) gesturing toward the Maccabees and Hanukkah as well as, perhaps, marking their aspiration that the moshav would contain the fire of Torah. And for many decades, it did. Yet we know that the fire that builds is also the fire that destroys. And for reasons we will never know, the fire that burned bright has now been consumed by a fire that burned dark.

Yet there is another fire we must not forget–the ner timidi–the fire that burns and is never extinguished. There is in “the hevra” a ner timidi. Their entire existence is a surprise, and I believe they will continue to surprise us. As a “holy brother” said to me, “they are probably dancing this Shabbos to Shlomo’s Lekha Dodi.”

Thankfully, there was no loss of life. But as my mother so aptly put it, there was a loss of “a way of life.” May the ner timidi of “the moshav,” its inextinguishable flame, continue to burn in the hearts of those who were warmed by its light, inspired by its vision, and embraced by its love.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

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