Academic journal article American Jewish History

A Holy Brother's Liberal Legacy: Shlomo Carlebach, Reform Judaism, and Hasidic Pluralism

Academic journal article American Jewish History

A Holy Brother's Liberal Legacy: Shlomo Carlebach, Reform Judaism, and Hasidic Pluralism

Article excerpt

"In my opinion, peak spiritual experiences happen when we are able to connect to something greater than ourselves, bigger than our own limited existences, beyond time and space. What the Jewish people desperately need at this moment is a greater sense of Klal Yisrael--Jewish peoplehood. At the [2013] Reform biennial, I did not have a religious experience, but a community experience: My soul made aliyah to the greater Jewish community, to Am Yisrael. A portal opened and I saw us as one, connected and bound together by common history and purpose. I'm still the same person I have always been. I still appreciate and follow the ritual I was raised with, still feel profoundly connected to the way I have always practiced my own Judaism. My statement was one of inclusivity ... Put another way, at the Reform biennial I had a true 'Shlomo moment.' I was blessed to experience the longing for Klal Yisrael in a way I could intellectually grasp but frankly had never felt before."--Neshama Carlebach, January 3, 2014. (2)

Neshama Carlebach's declaration of "aliyah" (spiritual "ascent") to Reform Judaism, coinciding with the Union for Reform Judaism's December 2013 biennial conference, generated a wide range of response across the Jewish spectrum. As the daughter of one of the twentieth century's most prominent Jewish musical artists, her announcement represented betrayal to some who had seen Shlomo Carlebach as an emblem of their orthodoxy. It also held a level of irony to liberal Jews of earlier generations who had looked to him as an antidote to their own wayward Jewish upbringings, and vindication to current Reform Jews seeking to emphasize a contemporary message of inclusivity with a capacity for deep spirituality. And yet Neshama Carlebach, whose own musical career held a complex, multilayered relationship with her father's legacy, described her spiritual journey as a natural extension of her father's ministry. While her family life was "filled with beautiful ritual," she noted, "we also danced along the fine line of progressive Judaism." (3) In a characteristic conflation of professional and confessional rhetoric, Neshama Carlebach's statement highlights a somewhat less explored aspect of her father's life that tends to run counter to the existing literature: a deeply enmeshed compatibility with liberal Jewish philosophy and practice.

A full analysis of the extraordinary reach and dynamism of Shlomo Carlebach's music in American Jewish life presents a task that extends far beyond the practical bounds of a single essay--or a single researcher. More modestly, this essay attempts to introduce an alternate model for exploring Carlebach's posthumous musical pathways. Jewish studies scholar Shaul Magid's description of Carlebach as a "mirror" who reflected others' desires of him or of themselves during (and now after) his life offers a good basis for this discussion. (4) The treatment of Carlebach's music as a kind of "open text" for artists with connections to Carlebach's ministry may help those artists to define successive generations of Jewish music in America (and beyond); yet a closer look at Carlebach's journeys of musical identity, in context, opens up greater detail on the specific discursive modes that Carlebach and his supporters used to frame and disseminate his work. During his lifetime, Carlebach used music to fill what he (from his association with Habad Lubavitch) viewed as a cultural lacuna in the lives of young liberal Jews. After his death, Carlebach's music, with its aura of Jewishness, its tendencies toward communal spirituality, and its allusions to Eastern Europe, opened multiple engagements that allowed the next generation to embrace Carlebach's specific presence and bring him into dialogue with their own Jewish communal philosophies.

Many communities have derived meaning and a sense of identity from Carlebach's music, and a small but growing literature on Carlebach's musical oeuvre explores his impact. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.