Shlomo Carlebach (Hebrew: שלמה קרליבך), known as Reb Shlomo to his followers (14 January 1925 – 20 October 1994), was a Jewish rabbi, religious teacher, composer, and singer who was known as “The Singing Rabbi” during his lifetime. Although his roots lay in traditional Orthodox yeshivot, he branched out to create his own style combining Hasidic Judaism, warmth and personal interaction, public concerts, and song-filled synagogue services. At various times he lived in Manhattan, San Francisco, Toronto and Moshav Mevo Modi’im, Israel.
Carlebach is considered by many to be the foremost Jewish religious songwriter of the 20th century. In a career that spanned 40 years, he composed thousands of melodies and recorded more than 25 albums that continue to have widespread popularity and appeal. His influence also continues to this day in “Carlebach minyanim” and Jewish religious gatherings in many cities and remote pristine areas around the globe.
Carlebach was also considered a pioneer of the Baal teshuva movement (“returnees to Judaism”), encouraging disenchanted Jewish youth to re-embrace their heritage, using his special style of enlightened teaching, and his melodies, songs, and highly inspiring story telling.
Carlebach began writing songs at the end of the 1950s, primarily based on verses from the Tanakh or the Siddur set to his own music. Although he composed thousands of songs, he could not read musical notes. Many of his soulful renderings of Torah verses became standards in the wider Jewish community, including Am Yisrael Chai (“[The] Nation [of] Israel Lives”—composed on behalf of the plight of Soviet Jewry in the mid-1960s), Pitchu Li (“Open [for] Me [the Gates of Righteousness]”) and Borchi Nafshi (“[May] My Soul Bless [God]”).
The New York Times reported in its obituary of Carlebach that his singing career began in Greenwich Village, where he met Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and other folk singers who encouraged his career, and helped him get a spot at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1966. But Carlebach was actually recording well before this and was invited to the festival by one of its organizers after she heard a recording of Carlebach.
After his appearance at the Berkeley Folk Festival he decided to remain in the San Francisco Bay Area to reach out to what he called “lost Jewish souls”—runaways and drug-addicted youth. His local followers opened a center called the House of Love and Prayer in the Inner Richmond district of San Francisco, to reach out to disaffected youth with song and dance and communal gatherings. He became known as “The Singing Rabbi.” Through his infectious music and his innate caring many Jews feel that he inspired and reconnected thousands of Jewish youngsters and adults, otherwise lost to Judaism.
Some Carlebach melodies were entered in Israel’s annual Hasidic Song Festival. In 1969, his song Ve’haer Eneinu, sung by the Shlosharim won first prize. The Hasidic festivals were a yearly event that helped to popularize his music. He also produced albums with a more liturgical sound. Some of the musicians he worked with during this period added a psychedelic tinge and a wider range of backup instrumentation. Carlebach now spent much of his time in Israel, living in Moshav Me’or Modi’im.
Carlebach’s songs were characterized by relatively short melodies and traditional lyrics. His catchy new tunes were easy to learn and became part of the prayer services in many synagogues around the world.
Returning to New York City, Carlebach also became known for his stories and Hasidic teachings. As part of his performances he spoke of inspirational subjects, rooted in Hasidism and Kabbalah. Some of his teachings have been published by his students and appear alongside his recorded songs. Carlebach spread the teachings of Chabad, Breslov, and popularized the writings of, among others, the Rebbe of Ishbitz, Mordechai Yosef Leiner, and Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piasetzno.
Carlebach became the Rabbi of the Carlebach Shul on West 79th Street. He continued to perform regularly at concerts, and to record various albums of his original melodies.
The Story Teller