Realize the Divine - Hippie Hasidism in New York

By Buchman, Rachel | The World and I, August 2001 | Go to article overview
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Realize the Divine - Hippie Hasidism in New York


Buchman, Rachel, The World and I


The Carlebach shul rocks. Literally. On this blustery Friday night on the swank Upper West Side, New York City's grayish version of foliage appears to dance every time the synagogue's back door opens. Inside, the congregation is praying at frenzy pitch. The traditional religious songs, known as niggunim, are not so much chanted or sung as cried, exalted, jived. Women, wearing anything from Ann Taylor suits with correct pumps to crushed velvet tie-dye skirts, swirl all around me. They hold hands in the fervor of common prayer as they kick their heels into the center of the circle. On the men's side of the divided shul, I can only see a mass of bobbing heads. I observe an array of baseball caps, colorful knit yarmulkes, a rhinestone cowboy hat, a Jamaican- style Rasta cap for white dreadlocks, velvet yarmulkes, lacy Druse caps, embroidered and mirrored Moroccan caps, payot (Jewish sidelocks), and far too many bare heads for this to be a "straight" shul.

Unique music ties this seemingly unlikely congregation together. Indeed, the group is known for embracing contradicting extremes. Its tendency toward diversity and synthesis is popularly exemplified in Carlebach music, which fuses folk and rock and roll--forms identified with hippie culture--with the traditional religious tunes of Hasidism in both religious and casual songs.

To fully understand the religious rock music of the Carlebach Hasidim, it is important to know something of their history. Though the movement has no exact date of inception, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (popularly known to his adherents as Reb Shlomo) began his eclectic branch of Hasidism, the ecstatic Judaism associated with nineteenth-century eastern Europe, in the United States during the hippie era. In 1966, Shlomo established the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco. At much the same time, people who had enjoyed his music and religious teachings for years began to identify themselves specifically with his practices. (In Hasidism, devotees often follow charismatic leaders, known as tzaddikim.)

Videotapes of Shlomo, who died in 1994, reveal a pudgy man with a gray beard and a small yarmulke, scrunching his face into wrinkles of deep sorrow and laughter. He tended to lisp, retained an Austro-German accent, and had a strong propensity toward both Yiddish and hippie jargon. Though grandfatherly, he evoked an "impish" navete challenged by the "glint of mischief in his eye," comments Yitta Mandelbaum. Shlomo was the kind of man people liked, sometimes despite themselves. If he had been born in America, instead of Europe, he might have been a star football player, class president, or the school smart aleck. As it was he became a rock star.

In an interview with Michael Lerner, Shlomo revealed that dualism is at the heart of his music. "When we speak," the rabbi explained, Oyou say 'yes' and I say 'no.' We are already opposed to each other. In music, what is 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."

A rocking rabbi

For traditional Hasidism to resonate positively with the secular youth culture of the late 1960s in America, Shlomo needed a good marketing technique. This he found by mixing the traditional meanings of niggunim with the influential music of the times. In so doing, he created a hippie Hasidism.

Many middle- and upper-class college-aged youth felt a sense of anomie. Most established Western religions--including Judaism, which was already anxious about losing youth to the secular world--began to worry about youth defecting to Buddhism and marijuana. According to Glock and Bellah, "Missionaries in one guise or another were sent to the centers of the new culture, but if they were too obviously missionaries, they were not accepted."

To gain greater rapport and establish themselves more permanently by working with alternative institutions, some ministries even reconsidered the church space itself.

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