Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach Biography
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925–1994) is considered to be the most influential composer of Jewish religious music of the 20th century and a progenitor of the modern neo-Hasidic renaissance. He is credited with reviving the Jewish spirit in the aftermath of the Holocaust and for helping thousands of disenchanted youths re-embrace their heritage. At the time of his death, Shlomo Carlebach had become a legend of sorts, having recorded 27 albums, amassed a broad following, and given away nearly all his earnings. Several of his songs had become so popular that people had forgotten who composed them, e.g., “David Melekh Yisrael,” “Od Yeshoma” and “Esa Einai.” But beyond his guitar, Reb Shlomo was also a charismatic teacher who combined story-telling, sermonic exegesis, and inspirational insights in creating a new form of heartfelt soulful Judaism filled with a love for all human beings. He discovered the good in every person, found holiness in the outcasts, treasures in the beggars, and righteousness in the rebels.
Shlomo was born in Berlin on January 14, 1925, and grew up in Baden near Vienna where his father, Rabbi Naphtali Carlebach, served as chief rabbi (1931-1938). With the ominous Nazi rise to power, the Carlebach family traveled to Lithuania, and eventually managed to emigrate to New York, arriving on March 23, 1939. Their first rented apartment was in Williamsburg, a mere five minute walk to Mesivta Torah Vodaas, the Haredi Yeshiva high school where Shlomo and his twin brother Eli Chaim studied until April 1943. Then the boys joined a dozen students who helped Rabbi Aharon Kotler establish in Lakewood, New Jersey, the first Haredi full time Torah learning Kollel. Shlomo left Lakewood in 1949 and began a career as the outreach emissary for the 6th Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe, continuing as the “right hand man” for the 7th in disseminating the message of Hasidic Judaism in America. Shlomo also studied at the Chaim Berlin Yeshiva in Brooklyn, and in 1954, received rabbinic ordination from its Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner.
With the production of his first records, “Songs of My Soul” in 1959, and “Sing My Heart” in 1960, Shlomo’s musical career began to take off. His third LP, “At the Village Gate” was produced by Vanguard Records in 1963, and marked the first time that a religious Jewish artist produced an album with a major American record company. With his 4th LP, “In the Palace of the King” and the 5th 1965, Shlomo was on the way to establishing an international following. By 1965, he had been on six trips around the world from Rotterdam to Buenos Aires, Sydney to Rome.
“Wake Up World”, both produced in April 1965, Reb Shlomo invented his song “Am Yisrael Chai” for the SSSJ – Student Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, the protest movement for whom he sang at many rallies. It not only became the SSSJ anthem but was also adopted for Jewish causes as a theme of resilience and perseverance. Shlomo’s two and a half decades of involvement in efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry culminated later, in 1989, with the a three week music tour of the Soviet Union, the first time a Jewish singer with Hebrew stories performed in Soviet concert halls.
At the July 4th weekend of 1966 at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, Shlomo realized how significant it was that a guitar playing Orthodox Rabbi could reach out to a hippie generation. In April 1968, he established the House of Love and Prayer (HLP) as the first and only Jewish commune in the Haight-Ashbury counterculture of San Francisco. Shlomo gained the friendship and understanding of Swamis, Gurus and spiritual seekers of the New Age by offering a Jewish mode of experience without deprecating their path. His theological premise was that after the Holocaust, it was necessary for God to send teachers from the Far East with teachings of love and devotion.
Throughout his career, Israel was a major focus of Shlomo’s activity. His first trip to Israel was in August 1959 with his parents. His father reported then to his congregation:
A lifelong dream, my most ardent longing has become a reality this year. I have seen Eretz-Israel. Together with my dear Rebbetzin and my son Shlomoh, we walked the grounds on which our forefathers lived such blessed and inspired lives.
Shlomo’s popularity in Israel is illustrated by the annual Hasidic Song Festival. At the first festival in 1969, his song, “VeHaer Eynenu” won first place. In almost every one of the first ten festivals there was a song of Reb Shlomo and his songs won more prizes than those of any other composer. Shlomo’s impact is also reflected in the establishment in 1976 of Moshav Me’or Modi’im. This became his home base in Israel.
Shlomo also brought his Hebrew singing repertoire to the non-Jewish world. This is exemplified in his whirlwind concert tours in Poland January, 1-10, 1989 and June 1992, where he pronounced his post Holocaust message of forgiveness and love. Shlomo’s last concert tour was in October 11-18, 1994 in England. He suffered his fatal heart attack in LaGuardia Airport on October 20, 1994. Shlomo was survived by his ex-wife Neila (Elaine Glick) and their two daughters, Neshama who has become a renowned singer in her own right and Nedara who lives in Israel and is a photographer.
Reb Shlomo invented hundreds of catchy, uplifting melodies based on Biblical verses and liturgical excerpts, combining the devotional ecstasy of Hasidic prayer styles with American folk music and sing-alongs. He was instrumental in transplanting folksy Hasidic songs and guitar playing into a wide range of settings ranging from concert halls and community gatherings to coffee houses and protest rallies. In addition, he created a new genre of musical-stories designed to inspire, educate and sermonize. He revolutionized nusach and zemirot, transforming Synagogue services throughout the world and he is the only composer to have an entire Shabbat service nusach named after him.
If dating websites are an indication of sociological trends, then indeed, a new definition is being created when “Carlebachian” is selected as an alternative to standard categories of religious identity. Part of the reason that some people choose to search for “Carlebachian” marital partners is because the Carlebach name has become synonymous with a Judaism imbued with spirit, joy, and love interspersed with individualism.
This biography was prepared for the ShlomoCarlebachFoundation.org by Dr. Natan Ophir (Offenbacher), author of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy, Urim Publications, Jerusalem 2014. See www.CarlebachBook.com
Reb Shlomo on the Moshav
Nedara 'Dari' Carlebach
Daughter of Reb Shlomo & Neila Carlebach
Photographer living in
Zichron Yaakov, Israel