Shlomo Carlebach and Meir Kahane: the difference and symmetry between romantic and materialist politics.

Author:Magid, Shaul

Rabbis Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) and Meir Kahane (1932-1990) were two ubiquitous figures in postwar America. (1) Each evoked controversy in the Jewish world--Carlebach for his validation of the counterculture and pushing the boundaries of Orthodox Judaism, Kahane for his advocacy of militarism and his unrelenting battle against what he saw as the hypocrisy of the American Jewish establishment. (2) In some sense, one could say that Carlebach was a proponent of a certain kind of Jewish liberalism that was beginning to synthesize liberalism with Jewish spirituality, while Kahane was opposed to that very synthesis. (3) In fact, as I will show, Carlebach's romantic view was not an expression of liberalism, but was closer to a utopianism founded on a belief in the ability of love to overcome human conflict without the rights-based foundation of a liberal ideology. Carlebach was one representative of the romanticism of the New Age, while Kahane represented a militant form of right-wing radical Zionism as a critique of American Jewish liberalism. Kahane espoused a form of diasporic Revisionist Zionism refracted through a post-Holocaust lens. Yet there still appears to be a strong symmetry between them. Gal Beckerman noted the Carlebach/ Kahane connection in passing when he wrote about the Soviet Jewry Movement: "Like Shlomo Carlebach, who combined a distinct tradition --Hasidism--with early 1960s counter-culture, Kahane blended the political philosophy of revisionism with extreme identity politics of the late 1960s. (4)

One would think the differences between these two men would result in very different positions along the Jewish political spectrum. In spite of the ideological and spiritual differences between them, there is a striking similarity with regard to how Carlebach and Kahane understood Israel and its place in the American Jewish psyche. The romantic and materialist politics that each represented arises from the similar fundamentals each shared regarding the dangers of the challenges to Jewish existence in the postwar period.

Anyone familiar with either of these men, either as personalities on the Jewish scene in postwar America or, in the case of Kahane, through his voluminous writings, will immediately see the vast differences between them in terms of approach, sentiment and religious inclination. And yet, on an emotional level, many considered themselves disciples of both. In a recent blog in The Times of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Katz, an American-born Israeli settler, wrote an essay, '"Never Again' or 'Like Never Before'--a Tale of Two Yahrtzeits," in which he argues that the symmetry between Carlebach and Kahane is deeper than one would think, and thus, the fact that they have common disciples (Katz being among them) makes perfect sense. (5) Beyond the vast differences between these men lies a more fundamental similarity on a series of points. This creates an unlikely symmetry, whereby Carlebach's romanticism manifests itself as, or can be articulated as, a strongly rightist political platform, even against Carlebach's better judgement.

The year 1967 was a watershed year for anyone whose attention was on Israel, which Carlebach's and Kahane's surely were. The Six-Day War resulted in Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem (including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall) and various other holy sites that were housed in the West Bank, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem and Joseph's tomb in Nablus. Surprisingly, Kahane did not write much about the Six-Day War in its immediate aftermath. In fact, in the recently published five-volume collection of his writings, Beyond Words: Selected Writings, 1960-1990, there is no entry for 1967, and the entries for 1968 only touch on the war. Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League in 1968 in response to the Brownsville-Ocean Hill, N.Y. teacher's strike, and his 1971 book Never Again! does not focus on the war. Kahane did publish a book advocating a pro-war position, The Jewish Stake in Vietnam, under the pseudonym Michael King, (the printed edition I used from 1967 had the names Michael King and Meir Kahane) but this was written before the Six-Day War in June of that year. (6) In 1968, Carlebach released a two-set record, "I Heard the Wall Singing," whose focus was obviously the reunion of Jews with the Western Wall. Yet this laconic record is really more of an ode to his father, who passed away in 1967. For Carlebach, the joy of praying at the wall was mitigated by his obligation to say Kaddish there for his father. So, while it is clear that 1967 did have a profound impact on both Carlebach and Kahane, we find that impact a bit more buried than we would expect. It is really the 1970s, with the birth of the settlement movement, where we find Carlebach and Kahane's attention focused on what would soon become the ideology of a Greater Israel.

One final introductory note: Why should this comparison or, perhaps better, why should the symmetry between these two disparate figures matter? I suggest that the importance is three-fold. First, these figures functioned as cultural icons in a postwar American Jewry trying to get its footing after the devastation of European Jewry in the Holocaust--a Holocaust that left American Jews as the most important inheritors of the Jewish diaspora. Both Carlebach and Kahane became counter-cultural figures in their own right, and they spoke to the baby-boomer generation that was coming of age in the 1960s and that would eventually lead American Jewry as it formed its religious, cultural and political agenda. Second, both represented a growing and complex relationship between America and Israel, especially after 1967. Both had constituencies in America and Israel and both contributed to the relationship American Jews had with Israel. A postwar history of American Zionism could not be responsibly written without including the popular influence of Carlebach and Kahane. Finally, Carlebach and Kahane represented an important articulation of religion and politics in postwar American Jewry. The rise of religion--for example, in the Ba'al Teshuvah movement in the 1970s--largely in the form of a more diffuse "spirituality" (New Age religion) and its relationship to the political (for example, in the rise of political radicalism, militancy and identity politics in the late 1960s) created conditions for various new forms of cultural life for American Jews. Carlebach and Kahane were not intellectuals writing for Commentary or Dissent. Instead, they were field workers in the "Jewish" streets, creating alternatives for an expression of Jewish "pride" in the tumultuous decades of the 1960s and 1970s. Understanding their differences and the complex nature of their symmetry is crucial, in my view, for a nuanced understanding of postwar American Jewry and the changes it embraced in the twenty-first century.


Both Carlebach and Kahane spent their formative years in postwar Brooklyn, which was the home of what would become some of the most influential Jewish voices in the second half of the twentieth century. (7) Carlebach and Kahane knew one another quite well, and they appeared together often from the late 1960s through the 1980s. They trained in different yeshivot (Carlebach in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn and later the Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey, Kahane in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn). While Carlebach was an immigrant, arriving in 1939, and Kahane was born in the United States, both had very similar experiences growing up in a largely Orthodox Jewish community that was navigating the difficult path of remaining wed to Old World ideas while adapting to a postwar America that presented optimal conditions for acculturation and assimilation. Kahane grew up in an ardently Zionist home. His father was a friend of the Revisionist Zionist Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, and Kahane was a member of Jabotinsky's youth movement, Betar, as an adolescent. (8) Carlebach heralded from the German Jewish aristocracy of interwar Europe. His uncle R. Joseph Carlebach (1883-1942) was chief rabbi in the prestigious posts of Altona and Hamburg, and his father, R. Naphtali Carlebach, was a chief rabbi in Baden, a suburb of Vienna. (9) Carlebach discovered Hasidism at a young age through visits with his father to Hasidic courts and, after his immigration to America, he eventually became a disciple of the newly appointed Lubavitcher rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, after studying in the Lakewood Yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J. under the tutelage of the Lithuanian scion R. Aharon Kotler. (10) Unlike Carlebach, Kahane had little interest in Hasidism and Jewish spirituality more generally, although he, too, was very influenced by identity politics and the countercultural changes in the 1960s, his Jewish Defense League being one articulation of that youth culture. For him, religion was largely functional, used as a means to foster Jewish pride (badar) and as a tool against assimilation. (11)

While not brought up in a particularly Zionist home, Carlebach absorbed the deep love of Eretz Yisrael from his Orthodox upbringing, combined with his profound awareness of the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust (from which he had narrowly escaped). This all translated quite smoothly into a romantic vision of Israel, both as the Holy Land and as a nation-state that served as a necessary safe haven for the Jewish people. As we will see below, many of the stories he told weave a mythic narrative of what his colleague and friend R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi labeled "virtuous reality"--in some cases where miraculous events in the lives of Eastern European Hasidim are juxtaposed and refracted through heroic acts of Israeli soldiers. (12) In the fantastical and ahistorical world of Carlebach's neo-Hasidic storytelling, prewar Poland and modern Tel Aviv sometimes overlap or become almost seamless continuities.

In one well-known story...

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