A holy brother's liberal legacy: Shlomo Carlebach, reform Judaism, and Hasidic pluralism.

Author:Cohen, Judah M.

"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. This essay focuses on the practices of liberal Jewish communities, the populations that in many ways inspired Carlebach toward a musical career in the first place. (5) Carlebach's adoption and promotion of a "musical Hasidism" in a manner that appealed to Reform Jewish populations connected with liberal Jews' longstanding interest in Hasidism as a mode of artistic spirituality and an antidote to excessive rationalism. While Carlebach's legacy has inspired its own heterogeneous range of practices, the view from within liberal Jewish life, with Reform Judaism as a focus, significantly impacted--and continues to shape--the reception, production, and dissemination of Carlebach's music.

Neo-Hasidism and Musicality Before 1950

The liberal Jewish interpretive framework for Carlebach's music gained its first form around the start of the twentieth century. Scholarship on new religious movements often includes Carlebach's ministry within discussions of "neo-Hasidism"--defined by Israeli scholar Tomer Persico as "the deliberate and conscious attempt to draw inspiration, tools, and cultural capital from early Hasidic texts and practices in order to bring about contemporary spiritual revival." (6) Martin Buber's turn to Hasidic spirituality in the early 1900s, and particularly the 1907 publication of his volume Tales of the Baal Shem Tov, serves as one starting point. Moving beyond venomous late nineteenth-century attacks on Hasidism as "Fanaticism, and more fanaticism," Buber framed Hasidism as an esoteric Eastern European culture whose spiritual depth, if harnessed in a mainstream contemporary framework, could provide Jews with a distinctive identity alleviating the burden of Jewish law. (7)

Music's immediacy, its acknowledged ability to act as a shifting signifier, and its role as an accepted part of mainstream European society, complemented and amplified these efforts--particularly when the iconic Hasidic musical unit, identified as the short, repetitive, single-line melody, could easily translate to any number of locally popular formats (including literature). (8) In 1898, for example, poet and spiritualist Naphtali Herz Imber praised Hasidic music in a mainstream Chicago music journal as the product of veritable "Jewish Theosophists," describing its "mystical melodies" and "primitive music" [ie. Indie] as uniquely able to raise "the mortal to the loftiest spot of eternity," and parallel to the mainstream spiritualist movements of the late nineteenth century. (9) Complementing Buber's work, pianist/composers Arno Nadel and Jacob Beymel (Beimel) published arrangements of Hasidic melodies and essays exploring Hasidic music in the German-Jewish journals Ost und West and Der Jude between 1905 and 1923. The journals themselves sponsored musical performances, both as standalone concerts and as parts of "Culture Evenings" and music publications, in one case presenting Hasidic melodies as "the original 'Songs Without Words'" in reference to a popular nineteenth-century form popularized by Felix Mendelssohn and others. (10)

For Eastern European intelligentsia, Hasidism referenced a musical style as well, adapted in relation to ethnographic explorations--appearing, for example, in Joel Engel's own work in the Society for Jewish Folk Music, and appearing regularly as a motif of compositions emerging from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music. (11) Numerous contemporary compositions using the 'Hasidic' trope (i.e., a series of stylistic qualities) consequently flourished in Eastern Europe and Palestine, perhaps most famously in Abraham Z. Idelsohn's arrangement of "Hava Nagilah," based on a melody he claimed to have collected from the Sadigura Hasidim in 1915 and premiered in 1918. (12)

The ideas about Hasidism and Hasidic music generated during this period cast a multidecade shadow of influence, and spread vice the migration of its key ideological figures to Palestine and the United States (including A. Z. Idelsohn and several in the St. Petersburg School of Jewish Music) and the dissemination of publications. American music scholar Joseph Rieder, drawing on notions that American Jewish culture needed resuscitation through a "folkloric" turn, emphasized in a 1919 issue of the Menorah Journal that "The Folksong Must Be the Basis of Jewish Music." He noted in particular that American soprano "Elizabeth Gutman of Baltimore carries throughout the country the message of our Chassidic songs, some of which, like Macht der Chossidl, have become popular even among non-Jews." (13) Rather than delimiting a genre, Rieder's claim framed "Hasidic" as a nonspecific artistic modifier, offering a gloss on Gutman's performance career that other accounts deemed simply "Yiddish folk song." (14) This kind of variability, which framed an accessible quality within loose linguistic and musical boundaries, would remain an important mode of defining Hasidism to a general audience. The New York premieres of S. An-Sky's play The Dybbuk in 1921 (Yiddish), 1925-1926 (English), and 1926-1927 (Hebrew), along with several restagings, deepened this perception with their avant-garde portrayals of Hasidic life--including a mystically evocative musical score by St. Petersburg-based composer Joel Engel. (15)

Liberal Jewish identification with Hasidism and its music strengthened further in the late 1920s, as Reform Judaism began to turn from seeing Hasidism as an adversary imbued with "bigotry and vindictiveness" to a culture that, when properly stripped of its zealotry, could feature a "beautifully cheerful, optimistic view of life [and] fervent faith." (16) Musicologist Idelsohn's chapter on Hasidic music in his foundational 1929 book, Jewish Music in its Historical Development, presented Hasidism as a distinct "spirit" with its own "folk" musical creativity that served as a progenitor of cantorial song. In 1932, Idelsohn completed the "Ashkenazic" extension of his Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies with the tenth volume...

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