Book Review/Personal Observations: Holy Beggars – Update

Someone recently lent me the book Holy Beggars, by Aryae Coopersmith.  The book describes the author’s experience as a follower of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.  See here for some reviews of the book.  I will offer some of my observations from the book.

For me, Aryae’s story is interesting in that even when the book ends, I feel the author has not yet figured out his own life’s journey, though perhaps he would concede that point as one’s journey only ends at death.  It was imcomplete, which I think is crucial.

To me, one of his essential points is his statement that the spiritual gurus of the 1960s were able to guide people towards a spiritual journey, but they were unable to guide them in understanding how the journey jived with their relational lives.  I have observed among many in the various new-age movements the amount of multiple failed marriages people have.  I think the author was acutely aware of it, having been married three times and divorced twice.  How does one grow in a relationship without their partner growing as well?

The life of Shlomo Carlebach itself, as a Chabad Shliach, was more succesful than I had imagined.  To think that his inner circle from the House of Love and Prayer had so many people who became religious is a testament to his charisma as well as his absence.  Carlebach was always in their lives, yet he was merely a stepping stone for greater growth.  To me, Carlebach’s uniqueness shines through and is most impactful during a scene in the book when the author describes the group with R. Shlomo, walking 27 miles on a Friday night to arrive at their destination for Shabbat.  They had to walk because of the traffic on the way to the synagogue.  What is most fascinating is that the synagogue was a Reform Temple.  During the late 1960s, this could happen.  I cannot even fathom a religious rabbi walking so many miles today to provide spirituality to people who are not practicing religious Judaism.  If you even consider the last couple of sentences, you will see the contrast.  Our views on denominations are such that it is unfathomable.  However, if one truly sees all people as spiritual beings, the particulars become less important.

Having said that, R. Shlomo draws a line when the author decides to marry someone not Jewish.  He will teach all who want about Jewish spirituality but he has a limit as well.  As is a well known contrast, R. Zalman Schachter Shalomi is a universalist while R. Carlebach was still Judeo-centric in his thought.  Both had a mission from the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, and in some respects, both were successful.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book.  It spoke to my heart at points, somewhat unexpectedly.

Update:  I came across a new book review of this work as well as another recent book, which contains R. Carlebach’s thoughts on the first parshiyot on Bereishit. It is interesting to see a different perspective on the above discussed book. I do not agree with certain of the reviewer’s assessments regarding the chapter discussing R. Carlebach’s relationship with women.  While one never likes to see other’s dirty laundry, it is important to discuss in light of the fact that we all know Carlebach was challenged in this area.  If we don’t acknowledge his flaws, then all we are left with is the cult of personality, which would also be unfair.  True, he can’t defend himself any longer against those accusations, but anyone reading this book is aware on some level of his relationships and as such answers, even speculative, are in order.

Books contain both virtues, flaws

by Rabbi Jack Riemer

THE TORAH COMMENTARY OF RABBI SHLOMO CARLEBACH, VOLUME ONE, GENESIS, edited by Rabbi Shlomo Katz, Urim Publications, Jerusalem and New York, 2011, 263 pages and HOLY BEGGARS, A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem by Aryae Coopersmith, One World Lights, El Granada, Ca. 2011, 396 pages.

I confess my sin today. Very few of us, myself included, took Shlomo Carlbach as seriously as we should have while he was alive. Today, we realize what a pied piper he was and how many young people there are whose souls he reached but back then, most of us dismissed him as just an entertainer and we did not realize how bold his vision was and how much he cared about the lost souls that he reached out to. And therefore, these two books about Shlomo Carlbach are books that I wanted very much to like, but I had some difficulty in doing so.

The first is a collection of his words of Torah on Bereshit and the second is a memoir of what life was like in the House of Love and Prayer that Carlbach founded in San Francisco during the sixties.

The reason that I wanted to like these two books was that Reb Shlomo called me — just as he called every other person whom he ever met — one of his “top men” and so I treasure his memory. The reason that I am unable to like these two books as much as I want to is that each has at least one flaw within it that overshadows to some extent its undeniable virtues.

The problem with the collection of Carlbach’s stories and comments on the book of Bereshit is that these stories were meant to be heard, not read. The editor, Shlomo Katz, has transcribed them from tapes of concerts, conversations, classes and interviews, but even though he gets the words right, there is no comparison between the living moment and the cold page, between hearing Carlbach tell these words and reading them, between hearing them while standing together in a circle with a crowd of rapt listeners and reading them alone. You wish that this collection had been put out on disc instead of in print, because then, as you listened to them, you would understand that they were aimed, not only at your mind, but also at your soul.

Aryeh Coopersmith’s memoir is more complicated to judge. I came to it thinking that it was the story of Carlbach but instead it turns out to be the story of the author and of his own experiences at the House of Love and Prayer in the sixties. Carlbach is often somewhere offstage during this book while the author is always at the center of the story.

He does preserve some of Carlbach’s wonderful one-liners. For example, he tells the story of how he called Carlbach long distance in order to tell him that he had found a place for the House of Love and Prayer and asked him if he wanted a mechitsa in the prayer room or not. Carlbach answered:

“There are enough walls in this world between people already. Our job is to tear walls down, not to put them up.”

And he tells the story of what happened once when a pugnacious Orthodox Jew came into the House on a Friday night while the young people were dancing round and round and berated Carlbach for allowing these kids to dance together instead of insisting that boys only dance with boys and girls only dance with girls. Carlbach looked at the man, and said: “You know, when they rush someone to the hospital for an emergency operation, they don’t stop in the operating room to worry about whether his toenails need cutting or not. These kids are almost dead Jewishly and you want me to care about this?”

The man stayed, got drawn into the circle and eventually became a part of the group.

What then are the shortcomings of this book?

One is that it focuses more on the author and on his own spiritual journey than it does on Carlbach and on his journey. The author comes across as someone who sometimes is a disciple who wants to learn from his rebbe, and who sometimes wants to be him. This is why the narrative goes on for years after Carlbach’s death, taking us to the author’s reunions with his hevra in Israel and in America and telling us more than we need to know about how they have reconstructed their lives, some as haredim, some as business people, in the years since they left the House of Love and Prayer.

The other — the major fault of this book is that it includes a chapter on Carlbach’s relationships with women, which is simply inappropriate in view of the fact that Carlbach is no longer alive to respond to it. And that is all that need be said about a person who was never judgmental of others and therefore should not be judged — at least not posthumously — by others.

For those who want to have some idea of what the sixties were like for many young Jews and who want to know something about the one person who paid attention to these young people and reached out to them with a vision that they could help bring the day when the whole world would sing the song of Shabbas, this book is an invaluable guide. It is precisely because it achieves so much that it leaves me wishing it had done more and that it had left out some.

 

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