Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: I would assess that I have met close to a million Jews. There is no man in the world that has kissed so many Jews as myself. At least half a million ... these are not kisses of Shlomo, but kisses in the name of all of Israel.
There are two reasons for this. Every Jew that survived after the Holocaust needs to be related to with love. His survival is in itself a miracle. You see, the spirituality of a Jew in the Soviet Union after 70 years of Communist rule - this also is a miracle.
Besides this, all the Jews are immersed in assimilation, and they need a certain person in order to be brought close to Judaism. I come to them and I turn towards them in a very personal and straight way and I show them that I love them and want to bring them close to Yiddishkeit.
One time it was said to the Rebbe of Kotsk that there was a certain Rabbi that didn’t like him. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk was very happy and said, "How good it is, I feared that he was liable to love me."
... Many go against me because I am ready to hug and kiss people, and they don’t even know how to love their own children... You have to understand these people, to understand what they are missing.
I remember the abandoned youth in San Francisco in the late 60s that were sold to drugs and I asked them, why? They came from broken homes and needed a warm loving relationship. I gathered and brought them close to Yiddishkeit. I try to bring Jews close, and they say I have success in it.
I have performed before many Jews in the Soviet Union. The Jews came to me, hugged me after they tasted the taste of Yiddishkeit, maybe for the first time in their lives. And they anticipate that I will be on the stage and then afterwards, how can I not go down to these precious Jews and speak to them about what it is to be a Jew. Could I possibly give a concert and then disappear before everyone approaches me? There is no choice today - except to approach every Jew and Jewess, if you want to return them to our people.
Come with me outside and see how many Jews approach me in the street and how many Jews approach other rabbis. And they don’t come to me as a star, but as a Rabbi from whom they expect words of Torah and prayer... every person today needs someone from whom he can get close to Judaism. I come to them to bring them to the insides of Yiddishkeit.
There is a concept of an ‘emergency hour’ and there are many examples of this when we were compelled to use exceptional steps.
Have you any idea how prevalent assimilation is today? In the United States it is 50% and in some places 80%! Why don’t the rabbis establish a serious program to war against this catastrophe?
I once asked this Jew, from an important Chassidic family, if he were to ask me to kiss his daughter, if that would help return her to keeping Shabbat? He responded in the positive, obviously. It is only strange that it is hard for this same man to understand me, when I speak of other peoples children, that I brought close in this way. Our rabbis have already said, that the Moshiach is coming, when we will know how to love every Jewish child as if he were our own.
These children are drowning in the sea of assimilation! I am jumping in to try to save them. Those that are watching from the side think that I am making strange movements, because they don’t understand that I jumped into the water; they do not see the water. I come out and bring others out.
Aside from this, I don’t need thanks from anyone. A person who works for the sake of heaven can handle people who return bad for good, and still continue in their work without stopping. I believe that I succeeded in helping many Jews become better Jews. It does not matter what people say about me or anyone else. I am an optimistic person. Those that slander can at least do their job. They have whom to slander. One says something bad, and his friend adds - they have what to talk about.
Know also that those that you think don’t like me, reveal to me their love and thank me so much. You have no idea how many people whisper to me words of encouragement.
My students try with all their strength to bring happiness to their fellow man and to reveal to each Jew the light of Torah. There are some things that appear strange to some people. They called this in San Francisco ‘Holy Beggars.’ A beggar who is not holy, only wants to receive, and a holy beggar wants to give. They try to give, but those who are not accustomed to giving, relate to them as if they are strange people.
If I am a doctor that must evaluate an operation in a hospital, what would I care about the opinion of those who don’t even have any idea about the anatomy of a man? This is also the same in the area of the soul. I may have offended those who think they are great in bringing Jews close to Yiddishkeit, but they don’t have any idea in what they are doing!
Believe me, if I had the money that Ohr Sameach has, or Aish HaTorah, I would be able to help thousands in learning Torah.
Many received their ‘first shot’ from me. I tell them to go to yeshiva in Israel, although this does not say that the situation in yeshivas is ideal. One of the curses of the exile is to have to choose the best of the worst, instead of the best from the best. The spiritual atmosphere is far from what it needs to be.
I will bring you a few examples. I don’t know of a head of a Yeshiva in Israel that invites his students on Shabbat. He takes a vacation exactly on the day that is the height of spirituality. I also don’t know a head of a yeshiva who takes his students to the Kotel for tikkun chatzot [the prayer at midnight] and prays and learns with them all night.
Some received from me a torah of kindergarten and then they went to high school (Yeshiva study). But some understand that what I give over to them is already university, but before it only looked to them like kindergarten.
Do you know how many yeshiva students come to the Moshav Meor Modi’in as Shabbos guests they find a deepness of the Torah that they don’t find in any other place.
It is not a wonder that many boys from yeshivas come to us on the Moshav Meor Modi’in in order to enjoy our Shabbos atmosphere.
I was at the home of a great Talmid Chacham [Torah scholar] in Petach Tikvah. He said to me, "In another 10 years, everybody will adopt your way.)
This has already happened. I remember all the criticism I received when I set up the ‘House of Love and Prayer’ in San Francicso. Today, Chabad sets up central houses like this everywhere. And what does one see on a flyer publicizing this? Groups of girls and boys sitting and listening to songs sung by a Jew wearing a kipah and playing guitar! But when I did it twenty years ago, they said it was all treif.
I turned then to everyone to invite the youth for Shaboses. I did it myself. Today everyone does it.
Now you see that they are getting older and after some time, they will find other methods of mine.
... I tell everyone that turns to me, ‘Go to Israel, and sit a few years in yeshiva.’ Even though a real yeshiva, in the true sense of the word, has not been built yet.
Question: Did you not just return from the Soviet Union? So many Jews received you with great enthusiasm. The excitement will pass and what will remain?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: I hope that they all come here and will be able to continue. If only I could return there and establish a few yeshivas! But I don’t have the means. The religious establishment doesn’t help me, and even sometimes harms me. At the end of the 60s I could have brought back thousands of Ba’alei Tshuvas, in San Francisco, but I didn’t have money. I came with a program to one head of yeshiva. "I never saw a clown like you in all my days," he said to me. It just did not interest his institution.
This is how it is in the diaspora.
Do you think that heads of yeshivas develop one’s talents? Do you know that the most talented boys cannot find a suitable place for themselves.
Question: How do you explain your failure to build your own institutions?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: I cannot do anything. This demands a fortune that I don’t possess. Believe me, there are enough rabbis, not to mention students, that would come. Simply I don’t have money.
I was in Poland a few months ago (1989). The non-Jewish people that came to my performances said that only now they are beginning to be involved with Jews.
Question: It is a known halacha that Esav hates Yakov.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Why begin with this. It is possible to lessen hatred, and even to bring love, if you only know how. You want to wait for the day after the coming of the Meshiach? Ask those that were with me in Poland, how much it is possible to do, even today.
Question: Were there non-Jews at the concerts in the Soviet Union?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Thousands! The leader of the Nationals in Vilna came to my concert, escorted by all the heads of the group. He requested of me to hang the flag of Lithuania on my guitar. I said that it was forbidden for me to get involved in political problems, because I came with the agreement of the Soviet Union government. At the end of the concert he said to me that only now are the Lithuanians getting to know the Jews. Only now are they beginning to understand the chemistry of the land of Israel during tens of generations, because today they are fighting for their own independence. He also expressed sadness that his fathers did not have such an understanding toward the Jews.
Question: How do you succeed in creating this atmosphere?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: You have to know how to talk with them. They want to see a proud Jew that thrives on his spiritual tradition. The problem of the establishment is that they don’t know how to speak with non-Jews.
A Christian community from Vancouver, Canada, sent a $100,000 donation to Israel, and requested that someone come to lecture before the community. They sent a veteran military officer who explained all the sides of strategy of the War for Peace in the Galil. Very important! But these people were thirsty for a spiritual message, not for an expert in the dealings of war. They want to see a Jew that speaks about the ‘chosen people’, that we carry a G-dly message through all the passage of history.
Question: The religious establishment tries to pass over this message to Jews, at least.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: You know how they do this? It is possible to return thousands of youth to Judaism if you show them a real Shabbat. What do they do instead of this? They bring lecturers that play with the audience at seminars. They invite experts in family problems. I understand that it is acceptable to think that it is impossible to sell anything without this topic, which I guard with sensitivity. But why present this in the place of a real Shabbat? Shabbat doesn’t need anything to help prove the point.
This reminds me of a story of a girl who was not pretty to look at, so when she went to a shiduch date, she brought her prettier friend with her. They bring lecturers with different topics, as if Shabbat needs something prettier to go with her.
... I do not have in my heart even a tiny bit of hatred toward these Jews who are members of the Jewish and Israeli religious establishment. The opposite is true. I know there are good Jews there, full of pure intentions.
I am sad because they have in their hands great wealth and means, that could bring hundreds of thousands of Jews close to Yiddishkeit. This hurts me to see so many of our people lost every year, and the Establishment doesn’t scream ‘Gevalt!’
Just a month ago I flew in specially to a famous donator, after I returned from the Soviet Onion. I wanted to discuss with him programs to establish institutions in the Soviet Union. He arranged a meeting with me and then he didn’t even appear.
Question: How did you become Shlomo Carlebach?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: You would have to ask my parents and not me. If I did until now a few things that helped the Jews, then I would be very happy with this. But you have no idea how many times I almost hit my head against the wall until I succeeded with what I succeeded.
Question: Why did you begin to sing?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: They say that already when I was a year old, I would hear notes and then I would hit in rhythm on anything that was near me. My mother would always ask me to sit quietly, that I shouldn’t annoy my grandfather. I would be quiet if my grandfather came, and then I would begin again.
Question: How did you begin on your special path?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: I learned from my mistakes and from the mistakes of others. I was an ordained Rabbi, I knew how to learn Gemorah and halacha, but no one taught me how to love Jews or how to bring the young close to their roots.
Question: You were ordained to the Rabbinate by HaRav Aharon Kotler. How would you describe this period in your life.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: The years that I spent in Lakewood influenced me deeply. I learned there a Torah that surrounds a full world. I drank from his great spiritual and unbelievable intellect.
Question: How did you move from Lakewood to Chabad?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: I didn’t move, because I was always close to Chabad, even when I learned in Lakewood. Rav Aharon was the greatest genius in the world and I wanted to learn Torah.
That is why I chose Lakewood, but I was connected to Chabad all the time.
If someone would divide learning to bicyles, cars, planes and missiles, most of the heads of yeshivas today would be cars, good ones. Rav Aharon was a missile.
He knew how to cover a wide vision of reality, the speed of a missile, and the depths to which nothing can be compared.
Question: Were you close to him?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: It would be chutspadik [audacity] to even try to claim that I was close to him. I can only say that he said to me that I was amongst the few that understood his way of learning. His lessons were deep and all-encompassing in an unbelievable way. It was not another Rambam or another Raivad - it was a complete world.
It was hard for me to relate to him, as I said, that he was a giant of giants. But on the other hand, if I were to look at heads of yeshivas today, I would cry out of pity, like every student of Rav Aharon would.
We were close friend with HaRav Eismanuring in Lakewood. Not long ago I showed him a book by one of the heads of the yeshivas in Israel today. We looked at it as if it was the torah of kindergarten. What we learned in chavruta [learning with a friend] at Lakewood yeshiva was so much deeper. It was not like this was another Rambam, it was a different Rambam, like the difference between learning in university and learning in nursery.
Question: Why at the end did you leave Chabad?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: When I worked for Chabad, I asked men and women to sit separately and it was forbidden for the girls to participate in singing. One day I came to the Rebbe and I said to him, if there were yesterday 100 youth, I’d lose 90 of them because of sitting separately and then I’d lose another 9 because I’d have to ask the girls not to sing. I said to the Rebbe that we are talking about youth that are marrying non-Jews tomorrow, so therefore we must do everything in order not to lose them.
The Rebbe answered me, "I cannot tell you what to do, but be successful in whatever you do." This is how I began my own way. That was 34 years ago, 1956.
Question: What kind of music do you like besides our own?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: I don’t listen to much music because I don’t want to imitate anyone.
Qustion: Is this the same for classical music?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: No, I like Mozart very much and also Beethoven.
Qustion: How many songs have you composed?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: More than 600. It happened many times that a tune came to my head and then it was forgotten, so the 600 are only the ones that became famous.
Question: Which melodies influenced you before you began composing?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: The melodies of Moditz and Bobov are very special to me.
Question: How did a Chassidic soul find its way to a "yekke" like you?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: It is said that my mother’s family come from the city of Ishbitz in Poland, before many generations, and there was a stream of Vorky, Chassidic blood.
Question: Which song is your favorite?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: It is a song that I didn’t write yet.
Question: Which melodies begin the kingdom of Rav Carlebach’s songs?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: "For the Sake of my Brothers and Friends" and "Your Soul". These can open the gates of your heart.
Question: How do you compose your melodies?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: They come to me. I would have to walk around with a cassette recorder all the time, so that I wouldn’t forget so many. Many of the melodies that you know I composed while I was learning, while someone was taping my class. That’s how it happened with ‘For the Sake of my Brothers and Friends,’ as an example, we were learning in Berkley and then the melody came.
Question: I heard that there is a story to the song "Take out the Prisoners."
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: This was 29 years ago (1971). We prayed at the Kotel for the sake of those in Leningrad, two of whom were condemned to death. I returned my guitar back to its case, when I met Rav Nachum haCohen Kook, and he said to me that this is the time to compose a song. I took out my guitar and sang. It was a special day - so many Jews were praying for the safety of their brothers.
Question: How did you compose "Am Yisrael Chai?"
Shlomo Carlebach: I was in Prague, behind a steel works factory, 25 years ago (1965). There were not many Jews, and the Head of the community was under a bitter government, and was not enthusiastic when I asked him to gather all the Jewish youth. When he heard that I was Carlebach, he told me that his son sung my songs all the time, and then he agreed.
It was a very high concert, a day before Purim, and we walked in the street from the shul [synagogue], and said "Am Yisrael Chai" [the people of Israel lives], and then I turned to them and said that "Od Avinu Chai" [and moreover, our Father lives!] and I composed the song.
Question: You have arrived at faraway places and heard stories from the mouths of Jews that no man besides you has heard.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: The wisdom is being at the right place, at the right time and to say the right words. I have merited to get to many Jews exactly at the time that their hearts were open to the Master of the World.
One time I was in a city and a student volunteered to drive me to the airport in the morning. When he got to me in the morning in the hotel, I was absorbed in prayer. He saw how I removed my tefillin, and then he asked me for them and began to pray. And his was the highest praying. This young man told me that just yesterday he didn’t believe in anything - only science. I left him my tefillin.
Ten years passed and I reached a concert in Sydney, Australia, and suddenly a little boy of 6 and a little girl of 8 come to me and brought me my tefillin. I asked them how my tefillin got to them? Then their father appeared, and he told me that he moved to Australia and wanted to marry a non-Jewish girl, but "every time I saw the tefillin, I changed my mind." He didn’t put them on every day, but they guarded him, and in the end he married a Jewish girl and established a Jewish school for his children, who are real Jews!
How many stories like this I have! If only we are ready to get to someone that needs us, at the right time.
Question: These stories arouse hope, so why are you melodies so sad?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: They have hope and sorrow. Until the Moshiach comes, the heart of every Jew is broken, and this comes out in my music. But there is also hope and happiness: I also try to transmit a good heart.
Question: Is it correct to say that they contain sweetness?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Yes, that is what I want to give to people. Every person loves something sweet. I want that people should feel the sweet sides of Judaism.
For me, a sweet Jew is one that causes others to be just and straight like him. Why do many Jews stay away from yeshivas? Because, to our sorrow, the heads of Yeshivas don’t teach their students how to be sweet.
Everyone is so thirsty for the word of G-d, in our generation. We need that every "Ben Torah" (one that learns and practices Torah) will be ready to show the sweetness of being a Jew.
I returned from the Soviet Union. The Jews there recognized their connection to the Nation of Israel has a yoke that causes persecutions and discrimination. I came with a different message - how sweet and beautiful it is to be a Jew! I should have recorded their reaction! It was unbelievable!
Question: You were there in the year 1972. What is the difference between then and now?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Then everyone was afraid to speak, and they were seized by fear. Today, 1989, people have opened up. We walked in the streets, and we stopped and danced. Even non-Jews approached me, hugged me and said in their accent, ‘Rabbi’.
Question: What is so special about a Russian Jew, in your opinion?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: There are Jews that have a warm heart; A Russian Jew is all heart. The heart is their essence. I was amazed much more by them than they were by my songs.
And one more thing is very deep. The nation of Israel has been pursued for hundreds of years because of religion. Before the coming of the Messiach, we must give of ours souls for the land of Israel. The Jews in the Soviet Union have not been persecuted because of keeping Shabbos, but rather for their connection to the Land which is so special.
Question: Did you meet also "Ba’alei Tshuvot"?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Before I traveled, I was told that there were thousands or so Ba’alei Tshuvah, and each organization tried to explain how they were responsible for all these Ba’alei Tshuvah. It’s not the truth! If there are 50 righteous people amongst 3 million, is it possible to be satisfied? It is good for Sodom, but not for the nation of Israel.
They are wonderful people who have given so much of their souls, but it hurts me to see that some of them look like they were taken out from the cemetery.
I succeeded in gathering more than 500 Jews in the synagogue in Leningrad, to read the Torah on a Thursday. Mostly they were all young. The women crowded in the balcony upstairs, but there wasn’t enough room. So I asked my chevre to put up a mechitsa [divider] made up of chairs, so they did it, and the women came down. I know what can happen to a person during the reading of the Torah or kissing the Torah! Two Chabadniks stood there and bothered me. Who were they trying to bother? There were some youth there that it was for the first time in their lives that they heard the Torah. What tears rolled down from their eyes.
Question: How was it in Moscow?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: There were two yeshivas where 40 men were learning there. I was happy with each one, even though they are so few, when thousands are thirsty. I asked the head of the yeshiva if he would come to my concert and it would be announced that there is such a place to invite Jews to learn, but this was beneath his dignity.
I met him again in Vilna. Again I asked him to come and to publicize the yeshiva, but he said he couldn’t. He had to give a class for 10 people. I said to him that there would be 2000 there to invite to learn. But he didn’t come. It is unbelievable that also there, there are good Jews, but they work for the establishment. They don’t have a sense of responsibility toward others.
I’ll tell you something else. I was at the grave of Rebbe Nachman right before Rosh HaShana. I brought with me a bus full of Jews that never in the world heard of Rebbe Nachman. I met some Breslover Chassidim that were preparing for hundreds that were coming for Rosh HaShana from Israel. I asked them how many Jews are you bringing from Kiev? They looked at me as if I was changing a cow into a donkey! They didn’t even think about it!
I saw what prayer can do at the grave of Rebbe Nachman. There was one Jew who an hour before didn’t know who the Baal Shem Tov was. He stood and prayed. After that he said to me that from now on he would keep Shabbat all his life.
There was a simple Jew there that flew afterwards to Moscow. He sat and learned with me and afterwards said to me, "I don’t know if I will merit to learn all the Torah, but I’ve asked HaKadosh Baruch Hu [G-d] that my daughter, who is 12, should merit to be a real Jew.
Question: How do you explain that the signs of waking up are less, after the same Jews come to Israel?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: We don’t know how to receive these Jews.
We don’t make them really feel like they are wanted, that we are waiting for them, that we are happy that they have come. How important this is!
I heard a story of Rabbi Shimon from Squarenovitz, grandson of Rabbi Mendel of Vorke. One chassid came to him and said that his daughter ran away with a non-Jew to a monastery, in order to convert her and marry her. Rabbi Shimon asked for the address of the monastery, and traveled there with one chassid. He paid a non-Jew and asked him to deliver a letter to the Jewish girl in the monastery. And this is what the letter said, "I, Shimon from Squarenovitz, stand outside and wait for you." He waited there three days, until the girl came out. "Why did you come out suddenly?" asked the Rebbe. "I know the Rebbe was waiting for me," she answered.