Schlomo Carlebach is unmistakably Jewish. He’s an orthodox rabbi and in some ways fits the traditional image perfectly. In his Yiddish accent he offers morning bagels, tells tales of the holy rabbis, talks of his family, the wonders of the Sabbath, Israel’s promised land, his eyes always looking upward toward God, like a close friend with whom he’s had a slight disagreement. In other ways, he seems entirely unique. He’s 52, and since the mid-fifties has been a traveling musician, composer, and storyteller, as well as rabbi. He’s an inspirational folk-singer with a world-wide reputation — a Hasidic troubadour with 17 records to his credit — and spends much of his time on tour. There’s a large volume of his collected stories in progress. Through the Sixties and early Seventies he ran what he called “a very special commune,” near the Haight-Asbury section of San Francisco, called The House of Love and Prayer.
I knew very little about him when we met. I had heard a few of his songs as a child, and more recently of his reputation as a Jewish mystic fond of leading Jews in other spiritual traditions back to Jewish study. This intrigued me, especially as his weekend workshop was at Mount Madonna Center, a yoga community north of Santa Cruz, California, where I was spending a few summer weeks. Like many Eastern-based spiritual groups in America, more than half the members of the Mount Madonna Center are Jewish — by birth that is, not preference. Speaking with some of the “Jewish yogis” I felt a strong distaste in them at the prospect of Carlebach’s arrival, little desire to be reminded of a tradition many had abandoned as lifeless since their Hebrew school days. It had been a few years since I had been in temple myself, but I was curious. After helping with the dishes, I went to see Schlomo’s first workshop — a Friday night service. Schlomo sat in a tall chair, rocking back and forth, around him a tight-knit circle of people, arms around each other’s waists, swaying gently, eyes closed. He was telling a story, which soon reminded him of another, which led into a third, then into a quiet prayer, then a song. There was a special closeness and simplicity to his approach. He seemed less concerned with the form of the Sabbath worship than with what he saw as its essence — opening to the holiness and blessing one another. In prayer, he was all heart. The service went on long into the night. During one long chant Schlomo even fell asleep, then woke to finish a story.
Saturday he led a Bar-Mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony, for a boy who lived in the community. But this time, most of the community including the “Jewish yogis” had joined in. Far from the posh country-club atmosphere I’d grown used to, this Bar-Mitzvah was held in a large tent under the trees. It was a joyous ceremony, full of song, story and dance, where Schlomo ended up Bar-Mitzvahing everyone in sight, proclaiming that it had to be one of the holiest days since creation. I had an enjoyable talk with him afterward, which ended with this question, “So, why don’t you come with us to Israel?”
Cliched or not, I felt there was a spark in his fervent approach to Judaism that I had rarely experienced. His sincere, open-hearted style put me at ease with parts of the tradition that had before seemed rather empty. Two months later, when Sy asked me who I’d most like to interview, I thought of Schlomo. When I called, he had just returned from Jerusalem. His reply: “Ah, that would be such an honor, so special.”
I went to see him in his home, a cluttered apartment on Manhattan’s West Side, above the small synagogue whose congregation his father had led before him. The study/dining room table where we sat was strewn with Hebrew texts, the wall behind lined with book shelves and a large picture of his father, a wisened old rabbi with a long white beard and a black hat, looking up from a book with grinning eyes. Schlomo had flown in late the night before from the Esalen Institute in California, after a week performing and teaching. It was the morning before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year and one of the High Holy Days. Already people were coming by to help with the preparations. Schlomo was animated during the interview, rocking back and forth, talking with his hands and with his eyes. We had a breakfast of bagels and cake. He seemed about to break into song or prayer, or both, at any moment, and often does. Sometimes his strong Jewish bias seemed heavy-handed, sometimes his spirit lifted me high.
I stayed for the evening’s service. Its form was strictly orthodox, nothing new-agey about it, with men and women separated by a dark glass partition and the service all in Hebrew. The tunes were Schlomo’s own. If heart can light up a room, his did. Afterwards, thirty people stayed for dinner in the upstairs apartment. Between the teachings, stories, singing, and dancing, we were three hours underway before the chicken ever reached the table. But there was no wanting for nourishment. When I said goodbye, Schlomo said to keep in touch and invited me to next year’s Rosh Hashana celebration. “By then,” he said, “Maybe you’ll be a good Jew.”
— Howard Jay Rubin
SUN: Today you find Jews involved in a variety of spiritual disciplines. What do you say to a Jew who tells you he hasn’t found spiritual meaning in Judaism?
CARLEBACH: (Looks upward.) The question is, how much faith do you have in your forefathers that they didn’t waste their time? Let’s assume somebody says to me, I don’t find meaning in Judaism. I ask, how much do you really know about Yiddishkeit [the Jewish Tradition]? You know nothing, right? Maybe you went to a Hebrew school and were taught by a teacher who knew less than you. And your father and mother, they should be well and happy, maybe they knew all the laws of bagels and lox. We are eternal people. If it was only bagels and lox we wouldn’t be here anymore. If a person knows how holy it is to be a Jew. All those kids running to India to look for something they say they didn’t find in Judaism — did they really look for it? They didn’t really look. They saw one bad thing and they left. If all those Jewish kids would put their soul and heart into looking for the holiness in Judaism that they find in other religions we would have the strongest religion in the world.
The sad truth is that we Jews are the most misrepresented tradition. Most of the great spiritual leaders we had were killed with the six million in World War II. Spiritually we are bankrupt. So what we have to do is go back and dig into those holy books and rebuild our own house.
SUN: How would you point them back to Judaism?
CARLEBACH: How can you know? For God, everything is open. Maybe one person will serve God through praying, one through learning, one through good deeds, one through being a midwife. They have to find someone who knows them and can guide them. But do you know what else is heart-breaking? Most rabbis today — and I don’t want to say anything bad before Rosh Hashana — they’re not on a high consciousness level. I’ll tell you the truth, I have absolute understanding for all those young people today who go somewhere else, because if I went to a rabbi whose consciousness is maybe as high as my toenail, maybe less, I would look around also. Not only don’t many rabbis teach from a high consciousness but they don’t even know what you are talking about.
Something special is happening today, not only for us Jewish people but for the whole world. What we expect of God is much deeper than what our parents expected. I have a feeling that the six million who went to death in the gas chambers really opened gates for the world. As if their last prayer was, “Please God, please reveal yourself in a new way for the world.”
The whole world is praying all the time. The animals and even the leaves on the trees are praying. The way to receive light from God is through praying. The only difference is that some people pray unconsciously, some pray consciously, and some pray super-consciously.
SUN: When many think about all the suffering in the world, the suffering of the six million, it shakes their faith. How do you respond to this?
CARLEBACH: For me, it makes my faith in God stronger. If, God forbid, the good people of the world had turned around and become murderers, I would have been shaken. But it was the non-God people who were murderers. It’s clear to me that God is showing me that civilization doesn’t amount to anything. Do you know how much it purified the world? After the six million, the whole world should have gotten up and said, “Let’s change our education system. Because all those people had a secular education and that was still no good.” Do you know how strong that makes my faith in God? The only way of really being a human being in God’s image is if you hold on to God, if you study holy words. Most religions showed their true faith during the six million. They didn’t do anything. Forget about the Jews, twenty million people were killed because some crazy people wanted them killed and no one was helping them.
There are many people who speak well and look like they wouldn’t kill a cockroach, but they wouldn’t lift a hand if the whole world was going to be killed. The holy Baal Shem [a great Hassidic rabbi of the 1700’s] said that before the Messiah’s coming, the good people will become real good and the bad people will become worse. We’re reaching the point where we can kill the whole world in twenty minutes, maybe less, maybe two minutes. And people are fooling around.
In Judaism there are such deep teachings that can lift up your soul to the highest level, but the sad thing is in Judaism we have everything in the kitchen and nothing on the menu. When you ask what Judaism is, the answer you usually get is so stupid and non-soul searching that who wants to bother?
Not only don’t many rabbis teach from high consciousness but they don’t even know what you are talking about.
SUN: Let’s talk about the Jewish mystical experience.
CARLEBACH: Tomorrow we are going to blow the shofar. It’s the holiest of all. It’s calling us to awaken to God.
Someone wrote a letter to the holy Sanzans and asked him, “When I blow the shofar, what am I supposed to think about?” He answered, “Whatever a Jew thought about when he jumped into the fire for God during the time of the Inquisition, that’s what you should think about when you’re blowing the shofar.” It’s the experience of completely giving yourself over to God. That’s one side of the coin. I’ll tell you the other side. The holy Bertishuver let it be known to the city that he’s looking for a person to blow the shofar, but the person has to tell him exactly what they are thinking about when they blow it. So all the great Kabbalists [Jewish mystics], come and tell him the deeper meaning of everything and he says to them, “Thank you very much.” Then finally Moishe the water carrier comes. He can barely read or write, so he’s not a Kabbalist, but is he a Kabbalist! He’s asked, “What are you thinking about when you blow the shofar?” He says, “Holy master, please don’t laugh at me, but I’ll tell you the truth. I have seven daughters and I have no money to marry them off. So while I blow the shofar I say to God, please have compassion on my seven daughters.” “Ah,” the holy Bertishuver says, “that’s good.”
Mysticism, maybe in former days, meant knowing all kinds of tricks. As far as I’m concerned, today a mystic is someone for whom God is real. For whom the world is real. So many people talk about mysticism from their head and it doesn’t mean anything to them. On the other hand, we have so many young people who are the deepest Kabbalists. They may not know the words for it but they really have the light, God’s light, inside of them. All we need do is teach them the words. I don’t think since the destruction of the temple we’ve had so many people so open and so ready to serve God in the deepest way. And we’re still holding on. I don’t know to what.
SUN: To forms?
CARLEBACH: No, no. The old forms are very holy, if they’re done properly. All forms are garments, but if you have only the garments and no one’s underneath them, it’s nothing. Imagine that I love a girl very much and instead of seeing her I’m walking around with her dress. It’s nothing. If she is under it, suddenly it’s not just the dress anymore. All the forms are just the forms of serving God.
SUN: A friend of mine said, “New York is a hard place to believe in anything.” How do you keep your mind on God in all this tumult?
CARLEBACH: Wherever you are, God gives you just enough strength and enough energy to do it. All you have to do is ask for it.
SUN: Do you ask through prayer?
CARLEBACH: All the time. You see, the whole world is praying all the time. The animals and even the leaves on the trees are praying. The way to receive light from God is through praying. The only difference is that some people pray unconsciously, some pray consciously, some pray super-consciously. You can walk into a restaurant and see a person who says, “I’m so hungry. I need some soup.” Deep down his soul is praying to God, “God, please give me life, I’m at the end.”
You know, when you have no money and you really need a cup of coffee, you pray, “God, please give me a quarter for a cup of coffee. I’m really at the end.” But when you have a thousand dollars you don’t remember to pray for a quarter. What’s so special is when you have the money and you still remember to ask God to give. There was a holy rabbi who even when the food was on the table in front of him, before he’d eat it he’d pray, “Please God, feed me.”
SUN: Your father was a rabbi also, wasn’t he?
CARLEBACH: My father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, going back to King David through 18 grandchildren, can you imagine?
SUN: What was growing up like for you?
CARLEBACH: There was never anything else in my head except to be the strongest Jew and to study Torah day and night. I hoped to God that one day I’d become a good teacher. And I also wanted very much to be a great musician.
My father was a very special rabbi. Not just a head rabbi, but a soul rabbi. He loved every single human being. When he walked down the street every person wanted to say hello to him. I’d turn back and see people standing at the end of the block looking after him. Very charismatic. Not only did he love people so much, but he gave them so much honor. Today what people need so much is not only love but also honor. Someone to support them, to tell them that they are special and in God’s image. A lot of parents love their children but don’t give them any honor.
There is something that is even deeper than truth. Imagine I see this boy stealing. The truth is he stole. But if I’m on the God level I see that this boy is hungry, he’s broke. If I’m on the deeper than truth level, no he didn’t steal. And I’m not lying . . . When God forgives us, that’s on the level of beyond truth.
SUN: When I first met you — and others have said the same — your greeting was very special, like “Hey, my brother.” You seem to recognize everyone. Then you greet ten other people and each greeting is also special. Can that always be sincere?
CARLEBACH: I hope so. I’m still learning, you know. The Bible says love your neighbor as yourself. Neighbor is a bad translation. The Hebrew word really means the person standing next to you. So that means each time you’re talking to a person, you have to turn your whole heart toward the person. I’m trying to do that. When I talk to one person this person is the only person in the world. When I talk to another person, that person is the only person in the world.
SUN: Can you pick out any point in your life as a turning point or awakening?
CARLEBACH: I remember once, when I was three years old, I opened the Holy Ark in the temple, where the Torah is kept, and somehow got into it. I was sitting there, holding the Torah and praying with it very hard. My mother and father looked for me all over the temple. Then my father had a flash that maybe I was hiding in the Holy Ark. I remember that I really tied myself to the Torah that day, very strong. I hope so. Other than that, the Talmud was always the deepest thing in my heart. I began learning Talmud when I was five years old and by the time I was seven or eight I knew hundreds of pages by heart. Learning was so much joy for me that I didn’t even want to play football or anything.
SUN: Some say that the words we speak about truth are, at best, like fingers pointed toward it. How do you talk about truth without distracting from it?
CARLEBACH: First, you can only speak of the truth for yourself. Also, there is something that is even deeper than truth. Imagine I see this boy stealing. The truth is he stole. But if I’m on the God level I see that this boy is hungry, he’s broke. If I’m on the deeper than truth level, no he didn’t steal. And I’m not lying. When we pray on Rosh Hashana at the beginning of the New Year, that’s still on the level of truth. On Yom Kippur, when God forgives us, that’s on the level of beyond truth. I come before God and say, “You know I did so much wrong.” And God says, “No, it’s not true, I didn’t see it.” A deeper kind of truth. The deepest kind of truth? You’re right, how can you talk about it?
SUN: One way you share is through your songs. Can you speak about what you try to convey in your music?
CARLEBACH: You know what’s so special? When we speak, you say yes and I say no. We’re already opposed to each other. In music what’s absolutely unbelievable is that I can sing a melody, you can sing different notes, and it’s the deepest harmony. The greatest revelation of God’s oneness in the world is music.
In Budapest, there’s an old palace that is now turned into a coffee shop and a restaurant. Outside people sit together. I walked out there one night and I saw a man from Russia with an accordion, a young man from Siberia with a guitar, a woman from Bulgaria with a mandolin. We don’t talk each other’s languages, maybe if we asked each other our ideas about life it might be terrible. I listened to their singing and then this boy gave me his guitar and we all began to play. It was unbelievable. Before long there were hundreds of people who were dancing. Music is so deep that it goes beyond all differences. Every human being is different from every other, every blade of grass is different from every other, never two the same. Yet there is so much oneness. I want to concentrate always on the oneness instead of on the differences.
SUN: Behind the most joyous of your songs, and other Jewish music, I hear sorrow. Is this sorrow always with us?
CARLEBACH: That’s the only way. The beautiful thing is that when you sing a song that’s for real it touches every emotion — happiness, sadness, exaltedness, humility. It’s unbelievable. That’s the first thing I look for in a good song, that you can cry with it and dance with it. It doesn’t need to be the sad sadness, but the living sadness, the little bit of brokenness. Because we’re living in a broken world. Everything is a bit broken. Listen, when you love a girl very much, it’s heart-breaking, right? It makes you whole and it breaks your heart at the same time, like a good melody.
SUN: What brings you the most joy in life?
CARLEBACH: The most joy is my children. They are the center of the center of the center of my heart. God blessed me with two little girls, one eight, one five. One is called, in Hebrew, little soul and the other is called little promise. They are touching the inside of me. It’s crazy, the four of us, me, my wife and my two children are so close (shakes his head), it’s awesome, awesome. God should bless me to be at my children’s weddings.
[Now the doorbell rings, the first time it’s worked in years. A woman comes in with the words, “Oh, rabbi . . .” She complains about how dangerous her apartment is, about her landlord, about everything. She asks Shlomo for some money. He gives her some and she leaves.]
CARLEBACH: She’s filled with so much pain.
SUN: What can you say to someone so filled with pain. Can you lighten them?
CARLEBACH: The Talmud says that if you love someone very much you can take off one sixtieth of their pain. With words you can’t help them very much. This person is sad, what should I tell them, don’t be sad? But they are sad. What can you say to someone to help them when they’re hungry; unless you give them a little bread.
We’re living in a broken world. Everything is a bit broken. Listen, when you love a girl very much, it’s heart breaking, right? It makes you whole and breaks your heart at the same time, like a good melody.
SUN: What makes a marriage strong? What makes your marriage strong?
CARLEBACH: First of all is the very fact that out of the thousands of women in the world I could have married, I married her. Marriages are made in heaven. I’ve met and married the one person in the world who I really know is half of my soul. It’s already such a heavenly thing, it’s not something I did. I cannot say, like a marriage counselor might say, work on your relationship. It’s cute, but if there’s nothing there, what can I work on? Sure, it’s hard work, but only if something is there. If you love the other person so much, then you can also stomach their short-comings. When I say to you that I can’t stand another person because of what they have done wrong, it’s not really the wrong that’s bothering me, it’s that I don’t love them enough. Also, a lot of people in the world would do so much less wrong if there was just someone else who loved them. So a husband and wife really have a chance to fix each other’s souls. Marriage is something that has to be fixed very heavily. With all due respect to the new age people, it’s one thing they haven’t learned yet. People think that there is great freedom in their relationships between men and women. The problem is not freedom; the problem is that we don’t see how holy it is. I understand young people, they see their father and mother who have been married for a hundred years, and have never spoken to each other. They think that’s true of all marriage. It’s not true. You can only say that your parents’ marriage hasn’t worked or that your uncle’s didn’t work. Even if the whole world’s didn’t work, why don’t you make it work? God is trusting our generation to fix the whole world.
SUN: You’ve just returned from Israel. What were your impressions during this troubled period?
CARLEBACH: Arafat is killing people left and right. And the sad thing is that even the good people in the world don’t raise their voices against it. None of the religious leaders have said a word, about the P.L.O., about terrorism. They think that they are only into God and not into politics. They teach about meditation, but when something really happens in the world they have nothing to say.
I’ll tell you the difference between Abraham and Noah. When God says to Noah, “There’ll be a flood. I’ll kill the whole world, but you’ll stay alive,” Noah says, “Thank you very much. I’ll build an ark.” That’s it. Swami Noah says it’s all karma, what can you do? When God said to Abraham, “I’ll destroy the city of Sodom,” just one city, Abraham went on and on pleading with God. So it is said that God made two covenants because of that. With Noah he made a covenant that the world would never be destroyed, not that it would be fixed. The covenant with Abraham was that someday his children would fix the world. That someday the Messiah would come and fix the world. Because Abraham was really into fixing the world. I don’t want to say anything bad, but I know that during the Second World War people were sitting there meditating. People are dying and you’re going to sit there and meditate? In the Yom Kippur War the Arabs attacked on the high holy day, and if it wasn’t for God’s mercy they would have killed all the Jews. None of the other religions spoke up. Some individuals maybe. They want to stay out of politics, they say.
SUN: But what about all the suffering of the Lebanese?
CARLEBACH: Terrible, oy, oy, but who do you think is taking care of them? The Red Cross? Do you know that there are holy Jewish girls who work there day and night taking care of the wounded people in Lebanon?
A husband and wife really have a chance to fix each other’s souls. Marriage is something that has to be fixed very heavily. With all due respect to the New Age people, it’s one thing they haven’t learned yet.
SUN: What steps do you see toward peace?
CARLEBACH: In my lowest moments, thank God, I at least know where the holy people are. The hardest thing in the world is this: while you serve God you have to be in paradise. You have to be aware that the world is so holy, so beautiful, so deep. There is no evil in the world. Then there are moments where you have to realize that there is evil, and you have to help get rid of it. In Kabbalistic terms this is the difference between the weekdays and the Sabbath. On the Sabbath I am living in the world that is completely holy. During the week I am aware that there is evil in the world and I have to clean it out. If you only live in paradise, and ignore the other six days of the week you’ll go crazy because it’s not true. But if you only live in the six days of the week you’re never aware of how beautiful the world is. If you can’t see that beauty behind all the ugliness then you’re not the one to clean up the world. You become part of the evil.
SUN: What’s your way of helping to clean up the world?
CARLEBACH: By shining goodness into the world and maybe turning on a few more lights. Doing favors for people whenever they ask. Also, my way is to try to give good people strength so that they can hold out. All we can do is give each other strength to hold out.
SUN: Would you tell me a story that touches your heart?
CARLEBACH: A man was sick, really on his way out. His son came in and said, “Father, you have to eat. As long as you live you have to eat. It keeps your soul and your body together.” “There is really nothing that I want to eat.” “There’s got to be something you want to eat.” He says, “Okay, bring me the soup of Chanala, the wife of Avremala the water carrier.” So he runs down to Chanala and says, “Please, tell me quick. What kind of soup have you fed my father?” She says, “It wasn’t really soup. It was just warm water. I’ll tell you the story. Two weeks ago your holy father came by our house. We were sitting around the table. We all felt like we were in paradise. Forgot all of our problems, the world looked so beautiful. Suddenly my husband said to me, ‘Hey, Chanala, bring some food for our holy guest.’ Only when I reached the kitchen did I realize that we ourselves had not eaten in three days. There was nothing in the house. All I saw was a little water cooking on the stove. So I took a spoon and started stirring the water. I said, ‘Master of the world, I would give anything for the holy master but I have nothing. Please, put some taste of paradise into this water.’ My tears are falling into the water and I’m stirring it. Then I gave him from that water.” So he goes back to his father and says, “I’ve got soup from Chanala, the wife of Avremala, the water carrier.” And his father says, “With ordinary soup you feed the hungry. With Chanala’s soup, you can bring people to life.”
You ask me what I can do to make the world better. I don’t have the answer. All I can do is to walk around with a little warm water and ask “God, let it taste from Paradise.”
SUN: What else would you like to say?
CARLEBACH: I would like to say that I know how much the world talks about meditation, but I don’t know how much the world is talking about really pouring out your heart before God. I’m sure that all meditations are holy, but I’m talking about something else. I want to bless all of us to find a few minutes a day, not just to pray, but to absolutely pour out our hearts before God. How many people do we know to whom we could pour out our hearts? Most people don’t know anyone in the world like that. Maybe one or two. But we’ve all of us one friend in heaven to whom we can pour out our hearts.
Reb Nachman says, it’s not enough to have a soul. The question is, is my soul in action, not just sitting there in my heart somewhere unemployed. We need employed souls. The job of the soul is to make people so close they can pour their hearts out to each other. It’s like the difference between a head person and a soul person. What they say may be the same, but the difference is that you don’t feel close to the words of the head person, or the person himself. The soul person is someone you feel close to. Because the soul is in touch with God and God is everywhere. It means you’re always close. What we need most is closeness. Closeness with other people, with God, between parents and children. And the deepest closeness is when you pour out your heart. After God puts a little bit of closeness between me and Him in my heart, then I can give it over to the world.
SUN: What are your services like?
CARLEBACH: I try to reach the level of the pouring out of hearts as much as I can. The form is traditional, but the essence is getting to that place where we are close. In a way my services are new because I sing only my own melodies, and yet when it comes to the most important parts I’m singing it the way it has been handed down for the last two thousand years.