Sunday, June 11, 2006

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

One of the most significant phenomena I have witnessed in my years on this earth is the renaissance of what is commonly called Jewish music. (I question the definition as what passes for Jewish music. It is really European folk tunes adapted to various Tehilim and other Jewish phrases. But that is the subject of another post.) Until about 1960, Jewish Music consisted of what I would call Zemiros. Recordings were limited to a singer or two, perhaps as much as a quartet. Recordings were few in number and were basically classic Zemiros for Shabbos or Yomim Tovim.

There were of course the great Chazanim all making recordings of classical Chazanus as well. And they were indeed great Chazanim singing great Chazanus. But that kind of Jewish music is outside the scope of this essay. In any case, aside from these two types of music, there was little else. Most non Chazanic melodies were rather boring and monotonous. Rhey lacked any kind of character or musicality.

Along about 1960 came an individual by the name of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who I had the privilege of hearing in my elementary day school in Detroit very early in his career. He was friends with one of the vice principals there. I will never forget it. There he was next to the Duchan platform with his guitar singing all the new songs on his first album that had been just released. Neither he nor I... nor anyone else in the room knew it at the time as he was yet still quite unknown but was he was about to change the face of Jewish music forever.

With his very first album he established himself as a genius of melodic composition. And his genius did not stop with one album. His melodies kept coming year after year, decade after decade until his death. Today, of course there are many singers and composers who have come upon the scene and each has impacted Jewish music with their own compositions and innovations…all adding to the current state of Jewish music, which has progressed light years ahead of what it was in the period just before Carlebach.

But it was Carlebach who had and by far the most profoundt impact. Not just because he was the first to innovate, not because his music was so unique, but because he was the most prolific and consistent in writing high quality music which ws adaptable to many different phrases culled from Biblial, Midrashic, and Talmudic sayings. He has by far written more popular compositions than anyone else. His body of work so great and so widely spread that it has permenated just about every segment of Orthodoxy and even beyond. Whether it is a modern orthodox synagogue or a Yeshivish Minyan, oreven a Yeshiva itself. They utilize and adapt his music to Tefillos and Zemiros. And what would a wedding band be without Carlebah’s music? The fact is that his penetreation into the psyche of a singer of Jewish songs is so deep and wide that many people don’t even realize that a given popular melody was composed by him. I have been at Charedi Shuls in Israel for example that were totally against Carlebach, (for reasons that are about to becoame apparent) who used his melodies adapted to Teffilos, even on Yom Kippur.

This is quite an accomplishment. No one else even comes close to him. He is the original. But it isn’t all roses and light.

Shlomo Carlebach was quite a controversial figure during his lifetime. In his desire to spread his music beyond the walls of Orthodoxy he started performing in various non Jewish clubs. He also started dabbling in Kiruv and attracted a lot of groupies during one period of his life. And these groupies were not necessarily Frum or even Jewish. And some of his techniques of outreach were very controversial. And considering the Yeshiva and Chasidic world he came from, these techniques were considered at best very borderline. He thus developed a bad reputation amongst his root constituents. So much so that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein had to write a Teshuva acknowledging the complaints about him but never-the-less allowing his music to be played and otherwise utilized.

Meanwhile, due to his charismatic personality and great storytelling ability he became quite the guru later in life attracting many devotees from all walks of Orthodox life.

Eventually, though maintaining his guru status among many, his popularity waned as other younger stars came onto the horizon, And they were quite good, names like Mordechai Ben David and Avraham Fried quickly surpassed Carlebach by using their own innovations in arrangements and orchestrations and utilizing the best talent in Jewish music to write, arrange, produce, perform, and market their recordings. These and others like them soon surpassed Carlebach’s popularity though none have even come close to surpassing his contributions.

Ultimately Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach passed away a pauper. I was told by a devoted musician follower of his that collections had to be made just to give him a decent funeral.

But since his death a curious thing has happened. There has developed something called Carlebach Minyanim. And they seem to be on the rise. On the surface there seems to be nothing wrong with them. They basically utilize his music to the entire liturgical service, especially for Kabbalas Sahbbos, with little if any exception. This in an of itself is not be a problem. But because of his Charismaitc personality and body of work, he has become somewhat of an item of worship himself. By this I do not mean as an Avodah Zara. But since his death his icon status has grown to a point where many a Carlebach Minyan is more about his music than it is about the Tefilos . It is as if the melodies are more important than the words. And when this happens it is counter to what Tefillos are all about. The focus is off. Way off. It is one thing to have a worship service. It is another when the icon being worshipped is a charismatic individual now deceased or even the melodies he composed. The focus of a prayer service should be God.

To be sure, not all Carlebach Minyanim are like that. Some actually mix other Niggunim with his. And in situations of Kiruv, it is certainly acceptable to have Minaynim that utilize Carlebach’s music if that is what turns them on to observance… as long as it is only the “hook” and not the essence. But for those who are not in the process of discovering Torah, I find such Minyanim inappropriate.

Yesterday I was in St. Louis visiting my daughter. I davened in the Community Kollel there which is basically an Agudah type Minyan. To my surprise, both on Friday night and Shabbos they were heavily into Carlebach. I noticed a high level of participation by those in attendance in the singing of the melodies of Carlebach. While it was quite a nice experience in that I am a lover of his music, there was definitely a focus on the music and not the Tefilos. The music became “the thing”. People were clapping and singing the melodies long after the words were sung. This is quite typical of Carlebach Minyanim and it misses the point of Tefilah. And I noticed many of the Avreichim while singing along (at least some of them) looking at each other somewhat embarrassingly. In my view they were indeed right in feeling that way.