Introduction: Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) and the Stories We Tell".
The panel prompted a mixed reaction, generating a series of questions about the contents and methods of historical scholarship. How could one speaker begin by describing the gathering as a "convocation" and encouraging everyone to sing a Carlebach nigun [melody] together? How might speakers' personal recollections reinforce or subvert scholarly discourse? How did scholarship and personal narrative interweave, and what could be called reliable or meaningful? And could Carlebach's relationships with women--a deeply sensitive topic that strikes at a fissure between spiritual and cultural elevation--pass with only a few brief comments intent on moving the spotlight back to music and ministry? Indeed, these responses, combined with a thriving insider literature and an active series of stakeholders, seemed to reinforce the compatibility issues of "Carlebach studies" with conventional scholarly history. What approaches and resources, then, could we use to integrate Shlomo Carlebach, a widely influential figure whose influences seem nearly ubiquitous in contemporary American Jewish life, but who left a shallow paper trail, into existing narratives of American Jewish history?
Thanks to generous moral support from editor Dianne Ashton, and Natan Ophir's eternally optimistic initiative, this issue presents a continuation of that effort. In one sense, the contributions here offer attempts at translation: while historians regularly face the dilemma of transforming life into text, Carlebach's case lacks many of the conventional texts that guide historians in formulating a meaningful grasp on life. As Ophir states in his contribution to this issue, research on Carlebach, and the parameters for assessing his place in history, depends heavily on scattered ephemera, large (sometimes private) archives of audio and video recordings, personal testimonies in a variety of forms, a growing body of published collections that preserve and develop Carlebach's ideas, and organized communities of followers who regularly collect, interact with, digitize, and expand on these materials. Moreover, while the academic field of history frequently looks askance at the ideological motivations underlying scholarly research (with some notable exceptions), the writers here sometimes rely on these motivations to gain access to materials, and to present their subject in acceptable depth. Reading these pages may not encourage singing in the same manner that generated discomfort at the Scholars' Conference panel--though who can say with any confidence that singing in this context obscures historical truth? At the same time, the pieces contained herein outline a different and necessary topography of source material that skews toward the ethnographic and forces us to face narratives at odds with the field's logocentrism: arguably indicating an onrushing "digital age" that gives the written word a vote, but (repurposing Mordecai Kaplan's provocative construction) not a veto.
Narratives of Carlebach's life, after all, trade liberally in legend and story: idiomatic for a tzadik whose teachings tend to defy a time-based axis, but a thornier matter for scholars seeking to peg a life course to specific cultural phenomena, ideological movements and world events. More intent on leading his life rather than documenting it, Carlebach consequently lived mainly through the stories of others, becoming the center of a variety of worldviews and fitting a range of what narratologists might recognize as motifs: Carlebach as the descendant of "a long line of rabbis," as a child prodigy, as a Holocaust escapee, as a Hasidic revivalist, as an authentic Hasid, as a troubled Hasid, as a Holy Beggar, as a folksinger, as an interventionist, as enabling the best in people, as an untrained musician, as a singing/dancing rabbi, as a selfless giver, as a Lamed Vavnik, as an Orthodox deviant, as a neo-Kabbalist, as a storyteller, and so on and so forth. In life, Carlebach both modelled and inveigled himself in these narratives, fashioning through them rituals of modern religious return and encouraging moral communities to form around them. At spiritual retreats (Jewish and otherwise), concerts, study sessions, religious rituals, the House(s) of Love and Prayer, Moshav Me'or Modi'im, "The Carlebach Shul" (Congregation Kehilath Jacob), and during peregrinations from one to the other, stories opened avenues of deep connection that laid the groundwork for an active and broad legacy, linking to life and continuing unabated decades after his physical passing. Continuous interpretation of his teaching abounds, frequently but not always following a mode of rabbinic interpretation that establishes moral and ethical structures by treating historical signposts flexibly. Other stories shape memory: connecting Carlebach's personality to contemporary values, building him up or breaking him down, insulating, idealizing, or indicting him depending upon the teller and the medium. Carlebach's many students tended to favor narratives that emphasized positive personal encounters while frequently marginalizing publicized negative encounters; others sought to complicate his image as a flawed figure whose personal actions fell short of his ethical teachings. Such contrasting narrative streams will likely remain at odds, never resolving into a coherent figure, and always seeking new criteria of judgment; but both persist. On a scholarly level, we must make some sense of this ever-deepening sea of tales, teachings and homilies that surrounds Carlebach, at times taxing more than usual the time- and fact- based blueprint that grounds historical scholarship.
Ophir's biography of Carlebach gave this vast and active archive a semblance of order, documenting for the first time Carlebach's life, travels, and teachings; identifying key periods of activity; and highlighting important historical contexts for understanding his ministry, ultimately laying out a life map for future scholarship. His in-preparation Hebrew edition promises even more detail. In this issue, Ophir addresses the process of conducting numerous interviews with Carlebach's followers and inner circle, and incorporating media and internet materials as a central part of his study, promoting in the process strategies for seeking a meaningful coexistence between "insider" (or moral) and "outsider" (scientific) scholarship. Yet these same materials, often created in an admirational mode, also led reviewers of his book to highlight concerns of objectivity. (2) Can such concerns ever be allayed? Perhaps, as Ophir argues, these concerns lead to larger ideas about the ways we evaluate prominent figures and their "impact" on various circles of society in which they dwelled.
Following Ophir's lead, the issue before you includes several different forms of writing that characterize the many different lenses we can use to approach "Reb Shlomo" as a scholarly subject. Shaul Magid offers a comparative discussion of Carlebach's Zionist philosophy, juxtaposing Carlebach's ideas with those of Meir Kahane in a provocative analysis that spans decades, oceans, and media. My contribution takes a deeper look at the role that liberal Judaism had in seeding and encouraging Carlebach's ministry: By affording a space for Hasidic Judaism as a balance to intellectualism from at least the turn of the 20th century, "modern" Jewish groups provided a meaningful space for Carlebach to occupy, allowing him to craft his message in intimate connection with those he most wanted to reach. Magid and Kelman's essay approaches the topic from the perspective of the American Folk Music Revival, addressing Carlebach's travels within an active and passionate musical world that shared aesthetic and moral values with him on one hand, and allowed him to establish a role for himself as a "singing rabbi" on the other hand. Together, these essays place Carlebach in different yet overlapping settings, effecting a meaningful membership in different communities--often featuring young people--while developing the interlaced parts of his complicated persona.
Two additional short contributions bring key modes for discussing Carlebach into direct dialogue with scholarship. Shonna Husbands-Hankin, an active member of Carlebach's chevra and a contributor to such Carlebach community publications as Kol Chevrah, contributes a narrative/memoir idiomatic of the Carlebach-memory form, while adding new layers of insight to Carlebach's foundational relationship with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Sarah Imhoff addresses a rather more sensitive yet persistent area of Carlebach's legacy, openly considering the complicated gender-based, religious, and age-based power dynamics that surfaced in his interactions with women. Of the many narratives that now surround Carlebach, those chronicling such uncomfortable relationships prove perhaps the most controversial, hooking into longstanding undercurrents about the private lives of prominent men (including spiritual leaders), while generating passionate counternarratives challenging their relevance or truthfulness, and offering reflection on the ability of narratives to affirm, judge, or marginalize both subjects and tellers. Both of these forms have become entrenched parts of the Carlebach "canon" over the past twenty years, serving simultaneously as primary and secondary resources, and challenging the ways that we receive and evaluate the nature of evidence in the process.
At its most focused, these contributions aim to give Shlomo Carlebach's presence in American Jewish history a treatment similar to other major twentieth century figures. More broadly, however, these essays point to the challenges that scholars face in thinking beyond documents, and perhaps even beyond conventional ethnography, present "the American Jewish experience" in its fullest form--a topic of increasing attention in the field of history more generally. Openly recognizing historians' tendency to treat text as a stock-in-trade, even with the best of intentions, allows us to explore meaningfully American Jewish history's own conventions, biases and blinders. More topics emerge once we mar the philological surface--whether religious figures who distribute their teachings via audio or video, musicians, actors, and dancers whose most intensive ideas disappear at the moment of enactment, or rituals created specifically to resist documentation--that emphasize the richness of living moments and our incomplete toolkit for chronicling them. (Related disciplines in anthropology and media studies offer models for consideration here as well.) Perhaps even this forum, a scholarly journal, needs to change to address these challenges appropriately. Could we, indeed, sing or dance our way to scholarly rigor and fulfillment? If the text in these pages can provoke that conversation as well, matching the telling with the story itself, then a creative and dynamic future lies ahead.
(1.) Natan Ophir (Offenbacher), Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2014)
(2.) See, for example, reviews of Ophir's book by Wallace Green (Jewish Book Council, http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/rabbi-shlomo-carlebach-life-mission-and-legacy) and Eric S. Freeman (American Jewish History 99, #2, pp. 202-203).
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|Author:||Cohen, Judah M.|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2016|
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|Next Article:||Shlomo Carlebach and Meir Kahane: the difference and symmetry between romantic and materialist politics.|