"Unorthodox" Celebrity: Shlomo Carlebach and Me

One of my first experiences of religious fervour occurred when I was in my early 20s and a friend invited me to a fabrengen, which is the Yiddish term for a festival of religious enthusiasm that the Chabad branch of Hasidic Judaism stages regularly.   These joyful events enable young Jewish people to meet one another and generally learn to view the Hasidic way of life as fun-filled and interesting (there are lots of study sessions) even when its religious demands are onerous and all encompassing.  To be honest, it was entirely new to me.   

My own experience of services in the small Orthodox synagogue, which my father attended for the High Holy days with fellow Czech and Hungarian Jewish immigrants, was sober.  The cantor’s melancholy singing, which is a requirement on the Day of Atonement, was anything but sweet and uplifting to my young ears, which were normally filled with the latest Beatles songs. In this environment, girls were neither seen nor heard, and if we made disturbing noises at the back of the sanctuary, which we often did, sharp looks and hasty retreats to the park across the street quickly followed. 

So when my Torah study friend at the Hillel club, who I did not know well, but whose interest in learning I shared, invited me to join her for a fabrengen concert, I did not know what to expect. The musical gala held at Toronto’s historic Massey Hall, culminated in a performance by the hippy Jewish troubadour, Shlomo Carlebach.  Known as ‘the singing rabbi,’ whose infectious tunes and lilting voice turned Torah phrases into melodies, Carlebach had already impressed the Greenwich Village crowd, including Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, and was a regular performer at folk festivals. 

But unlike many of his contemporaries, Carlebach’s message was not political protest.  Descended from a line of Orthodox rabbis in pre-Holocaust Germany, he was primarily interested in renewing Jewish life, especially among the ‘drop outs’ in San Francisco, where his followers opened The House of Love and Prayer.  It sounds quaint today, but the promise of spiritual healing through love and prayer looked more and more attractive to casualties of the ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ counterculture that had claimed beloved pop stars like Janis Joplin (d 1970), James Morrison (d 1971) and Jimi Hendrix (d 1970).

So, there was I, neither a drug user nor a religious zealot, but an astute observer of the forms my tradition was taking in what would be the most experimental period of religion in the modern West.  I had already witnessed the first female rabbi to hold services in Toronto, alongside her husband, in what was the relatively new ‘progressive’ movement known as Reconstructionist Judaism.  The couple were American ‘fly ins’ for the High Holy Day services in Toronto, and were very low key by comparison to the place I now found myself.

 

The afternoon of the concert saw Massey Hall filled with an expectant, mostly Jewish audience.  On stage, sitting in a chair and strumming his guitar, the round faced, middle aged Carlebach aroused far more enthusiasm than I thought his music warranted, but I was willing to clap in rhythm with the others, conscious that I was there as a guest.  But then something happened.  Suddenly people jumped up, and a hand was extended to me, and I was beckoned to dance down the aisle in a long line.  My friend turned to me and asked excitedly, ‘Can you feel it?’  ‘Can you feel the neshama?’ 

I knew that neshama in Hebrew was the soul or spirit, one of the terms newly parlayed by my study group.  But this didn’t feel like my spirit was pouring out of me or anyone else, including Carlebach.  As I was jerked along down the narrow aisle of Massey Hall’s old wooden floor, I could only feel the terribly uncomfortable undulations of an impromptu conga line of bodies of all shapes and sizes, moving forward to the front of the stage. 

But there was more to come.  It seems my study group was among a selection of privileged attendees that afternoon, because after the concert we were invited back to a home in the posh Rosedale neighbourhood of Toronto to have a private audience with the bard.  This was one of the most enlightening moments in my religious education. 

Immediately, I saw that the people gathered around Shlomo were an adoring crowd who hung onto his every word, which he uttered with a warmth and tenderness hard to ignore.  His large chocolate brown eyes shone as he spoke, in what seemed to me pleasant platitudes.  And yet, there I was, sitting toward the back of about forty people who were seated in a semicircle, observing the besotted faces to my right and left, and slightly embarrassed that mine was not among them. Knowing only two or three people in the group, I was an outsider.      

As we filed out at the end of Carlebach’s talk, which included a question and answer session, he stopped me at the front door, and asked for my phone number.  Me? Why?  He said he ‘saw something in me,’ and he would like to call me and give me some ‘encouragement’.  I was flattered, to be sure, but also perplexed by his singling me out.  Was it that face of mine which too readily showed my feelings, which today might be construed as circumspect?  Or was he on the make?  Or both?  In any case, it felt like an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I gave him my phone number then and there. 

I lived in a one room bed-sit in Toronto’s Annex area, where I studied hard as a diligent college student of social work with a special emphasis on religion and with internships in gerontology settings.  Then one night as I was burning the midnight oil it happened.  Out of the blue, many months after that evening of the concert, I received a phone call from Tallahassee, Florida.   It was Shlomo Carlebach asking me how I was.  

He must have heard the anxiety in my voice because he proceeded to tell me that a great way to relax was to have a massage.  Alarm bells went off in my head.  He said he could give me one over the phone.  My face must have flushed purple.  He said he’d start at my toes.  I thought it was bizarre and wondered ‘what kind of rabbi does this?’  When he got up to my thighs I told him it was time for me to go, ‘Good bye’, and hung up. 

As it turns out, I got off easy.   After Carlebach’s death in 1994 in Toronto, a string of accusations of sexual abuse were levied against him.   For years I kept that ‘encounter’ to myself, because of the esteem that Carlebach was held in by many in the Jewish community, even after the allegations of sexual impropriety surfaced.   And also because it is considered un-Jewish to speak ill of somebody, slander being regarded as one of the worst sins.

I soon discovered, however, that sexual predation was not an unusual phenomenon in the burgeoning world of new religious movements, which I would study as I continued my university education in Montreal.  There, I witnessed a steady stream of visiting gurus in the 1970s, who headed to university campuses, spreading their ‘wisdom’ while recruiting young, naïve and often lonely students.  Sometimes their spiritual ‘encouragement’ came in the form of sex.