Songs of Peace. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Sojourn Records, 2010.

Higher & Higher. Neshama Carlebach and The Green Pastures Baptist Choir. Sojourn Records, 2010.

Reviewed by Shaul MagidSongs of Peace

Jewish ethnomusicology in its current form is a relatively new field. In the past few decades there has been a flurry of studies and reviews that have dealt with the origins of Jewish music and various ethnic musical traditions, including American Jewish music. It therefore seems somewhat surprising that (as far as I know) there has been little work published on the prolific and influential musical career of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, arguably the most well-known composer and performer of traditional Jewish music in the post-war period.

Below I review two very different Carlebach compilations. The first, Songs of Peace, includes selections from two previously unreleased live performances in 1973. The second, Higher & Higher, represents another branch of the Carlebach industry: the work of his interpreters, in this case his eldest daughter Neshama Carlebach.

In line with a long-held tradition of Jewish song-making, Carlebach mainly provides melodies to scriptural verses and liturgy (in the early sixties he also recorded some folk standards such as “Kumbaya” and “I’m On My Way to Canaan Land”). He essentially wrote no lyrics and his music can easily be adapted to prayer services.  Since his death in 1994 his liturgical music (nusah) has become standard in minyanim (prayer quorums) of all Jewish denominations, arguably far more popular in aggregate than Debbie Friedman, Craig Taubman or other contemporary Jewish songwriters. “Shlomo minyanim” have sprouted throughout Israel and the Diaspora. His Friday Night nusah (first released as Shabbos in Shomayim in 1995 and then released in a soulful rendition by Ben Zion Solomon and sons as L’chu N’ran’noh in 2001) has become almost canonical in many communities. As a religious figure who played a prominent role in the Baal Teshuva Movement in America and Israel and a source of inspiration for many young religious men and women, he is conspicuously absent from Jewish Studies scholarship. Apart from one MA thesis written in Israel in Hebrew, Sarah Lerer’s “The Musical Tradition of R’ Shlomo Carlebach” (Bar Ilan University 2003), and a few short essays written mostly by acolytes, his influence, both musically and religiously, is largely unexplored terrain. In this short review of two new CDs of his music I cannot even begin to fill this gap. At most I hope at least to bring him to the attention of scholars of Jewish music.

To situate Carlebach, both musically and religiously, one might invoke one of his most well known songs “Am Yisrael Hai (“the Jewish people live”). This tune is popular with Jews around the world and became the unofficial anthem of the Movement for Soviet Jewry in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its roots, I think, convey what may be the underlying theme of Carlebach’s musical life. Barely escaping the Nazis (after fleeing Austria, he left Belgium with his family on a ship bound for the U.S. only a few days before the Nazi occupation of that country) Carlebach’s music seems wholly a post-Holocaust reflection. “The Jewish people live.” After 1945 there is a kind of mysterium tremendum in that simple assertion, one that must be repeated over and over to be believed. “The Jewish people live” was, for him, the “song at the sea” (Exodus 15:1) of Jewish modernity. Nothing else mattered. And at the same time, everything else mattered. His music was both a celebration of that miracle and a lamentation of the event that required it. “The six million” became a cornerstone of all his work. The Holocaust, everything it destroyed (European Jewry), and everything it produced (Israel, the flourishing of Judaism in America), underlies every song and every story. His music is the soundtrack of post-Holocaust Jewry.

While the trajectory of his musical career is beyond the scope of this review it is important to make four prefatory remarks. First, his most important recordings were live concerts and not works produced in the studio. Like other musical acts such as the Grateful Dead (many baalei teshuva Deadheads are loyal fans of Carlebach) the energy and interactive relationship between performer and audience is a fundamental part of Carlebach’s magnetism. The studio recordings, while they introduced some of his most important songs, are often over-produced and lack the energy of his live performances.

Second, the dates of the performances are an important part of evaluating his music. Carlebach’s recording career spanned over three decades, from 1959 to his death in 1994. He passed through numerous musical genres during that time, from a more liturgical cantorial style (1959-1962) to the folk genre (1962-1964) to the neo-Hasidic rock revival in Israel in the early 1970s. One can hear the influence of waltzes that stem from his Vienna childhood combined and then replaced by rock syncopation common in British and American music of the late 1960s. His music was in direct response to historical as well as personal events. The two-volume I Heard the Wall Singing in 1968 is a direct response to the Six-Day War and the death of his father.

Third, to capture the essence of a recording the location is significant. His performances in the Diaspora often differ in tone and substance from his performances in Israel, whether in Europe, Russia, South America, or the U.S. In Israel he often used Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew in his songs whereas in the U.S. he usually fell back on his more natural European Ashkenazi pronunciation. In Germany, he spoke to his audience in German, in the U.S. in English, in Israel in Hebrew. His stories (which are always part of his live performances) often cater to the particular audience. In Germany, for example, he often spoke of the Holocaust and universal peace, in the U.S. about the importance of being Jewish, in Israel about the heroic Israeli soldiers or the Land of Israel. While these are surely not air-tight rules, they largely outline his performance persona. For Carlebach, the audience determined the tenor of his presentation.

Finally, the relationship between his music and the Hasidic teachings that often accompany them is a complex issue that deserves mention. He came from an aristocratic German- Jewish family (his uncle Joseph Carlebach [1883-1942] was a leading rabbi in Germany until he was murdered by the Nazis). In many ways Carlebach was instrumental in bringing Hasidism to a new generation of non-traditional Jews. While deeply influenced by the Hasidic music he heard in Europe and later in Habad in America, with some notable exceptions Carlebach rarely recorded Hasidic songs, although the influence is surely there. His early material is quite cantorial in timbre and affect and even many later songs, while more Hasidic in inflection, are still more reminiscent of the music of Vienna than the Hasidic niggunim of Poland or the Ukraine. His father often took him and his twin brother Eli Hayim to Poland to meet pre-war Hasidic Rebbes and he remained very close to the Bubov sect in particular. But if you listen to classic Hasidic niggunim Shlomo seems to be doing something different. It is somewhat ironic that his Hasidic teachings became woven into his Germanic/Hasidic inflected and folk influenced niggunim to make something new, an extension of a European Jewry in ruins and an American counter-culture on the rise.

Songs of Peace is a representative example of his posthumously issued recordings. During his life, especially after his popularity in the early 1970s, individuals began recording many of his performances. Sometimes these were formal concerts and other times they were small gatherings in the living rooms of friends or patrons. It was not uncommon for him to play a concert and then later that night have an impromptu gathering, or Kumsitz, with a small group somewhere else in town. There are various people in the U.S. and Israel who are attempting to collect and archive these disparate recordings (some from the early and mid 1960s recorded on reel-to-reel tape!) but thus far a centralized venue for this work has not emerged. In fact, many people are reluctant to share their recordings, viewing them as private artifacts symbolizing their relationship with him and his music—although trading tapes (or MP3s), common among Deadheads and Phish fans, is not uncommon in Carlebach circles world-wide.

Part of Songs of Peace was recorded by Mark Kobler from a concert in Hillside, New Jersey on April 29th 1973, honoring the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. The second part was recorded by Srul Irving Glick and recently discovered by Carlebach’s ex-wife and executor of his estate, Neilah Carlebach. 1973 was an important year for the Jews. In October of that year the Yom Kippur War ended the “miraculous period” of Israeli history that began in 1948 and reached a pinnacle in 1967 with the Six-Day War. The reality of a long struggle for peace weighed heavily on the minds of the Jews. This was particularly true for Carlebach who captured the attention of Israeli youth in his jubilant songs after the Six-Day War and became a folk hero for Jewish youth in Israel and abroad. By 1973 Carlebach had all but abandoned his earlier project of the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco (which he co-founded in 1968) and began in earnest the career of an itinerant preacher travelling the world singing, teaching, and storytelling, trying to bring a message to the world that the Jews want to live in peace. The melancholy that resonates in his recordings immediately following the Yom Kippur War does not really come through in Songs of Peace (I do not know whether Glick’s recording was before or after October 1973) yet one does feel an impending doom in many of these songs. True to many of his live performances the songs in Songs of Peace span over a decade. Some, like “V’Techezena,” are from the 1960s and others such as “Yisrael B’Tach Bashem” are more recent (“Yisrael B’Tach Bashem” would become the title song of the 1974 recording that was an explicit response to the Yom Kippur War).

The selections in Songs of Peace all speak of shalom/peace, the lyrics of each song drawing from various biblical verses or parts of the liturgy. This thematic approach is new for Carlebach’s music, which had not previously included topic-centered albums, excluding recordings made of the Sabbath and the Rosh Ha-Shana liturgy. Interspersed are short explanations of “shalom” as if Carlebach is trying to convince his audience that what seems to be unattainable must remain a source of hope. For example, in the first song “Barcheinu Avinu” (from the last blessing of the Amidah) Carlebach explains that praying for peace is not like praying for one’s needs. Peace is something, he says, that can only exist if it exists for everyone. One hears in this plea a message for the Jews to realize that their fate is not exclusively about the peace of Jerusalem, but must include the entire world. And he is simultaneously telling the world that peace cannot come at the expense of one people; for there to be peace anywhere there must also be peace in Jerusalem (a song about the redeemed Jerusalem also from the Amidah, “Uvenei Yerushalayim,” follows soon after).

While the ordering of the songs may be the work of the producer, the message here is very Carlebachean, especially at this point in his career. By this time he was serving as a self-appointed Jewish emissary to the world to implore not only patience but to argue that the Jews, newly sovereign in their land, should carry a message of peace that includes the world. And he simultaneously turns to the Jews to say two things: First, that sovereignty is a delicate and precarious gift; and second, that this is not the end, that the prophetic message has yet to be fulfilled, that more work, maybe the hardest work, remains. Songs of Peace culminates with the popular “Od Yeshama,” a verse from the prophet Isaiah (“Still will be heard in the hills of Judea and the Streets of Jerusalem, the voice of gladness and the voice of joy; the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride”). All that is, is not complete, and all is not yet, is not lost.

These concerts are very good illustrations of his early 1970s recordings. They are still quite informal yet his popularity enabled him to play to large audiences. His voice is still strong (that would change in the mid-1980s); one can still hear the cantorial resonance of his youth; and he performs with an energy that would wane considerably in the next two decades. While the triumphalism of 1967 was quickly fading with the ominous threat of war, and the counter-culture in America that served as his inner-circle in the late 1960s was losing its edge, one still feels he is at the top of his game. These years are transitional. After 1973, until perhaps the mid 1980s, his popularity remained on the rise. Songs of Peace nicely captures a moment in time, a moment where the Holocaust survivors have become heroes (the committee to construct a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. was convened a few years later, in 1978, and the occupation had yet to become an albatross around Israel’s neck). It was still viewed by many, Carlebach included, as part of a miraculous moment of Jerusalem’s “unification.” This would all change after October 1973, and by the 1980s the entire situation in Israel became more vexing for Carlebach in particular, who was always balancing a strong sentiment of ahavat yisrael (the Jews’ love of the Jews) with a love of humanity. His refusal to take a political stand may have confounded some of his followers but also contributed to his wide appeal. He would play at the wedding of a follower of the militant Rabbi Meir Kahane one evening and the next day play at an Israeli jail and demand that Palestinian prisoners be permitted to attend.  But the political reality did seep into his music. His was not a case of political apathy as much as utopianism laced with deep melancholy. In this sense, this recording from 1973 may be the last vestige of a romantic period that is followed by a more realistic one. The prophetic words “Still will be heard in the hills of Judea and the streets of Jerusalem,” still seemed close at hand.

Neshama Carlebach’s Higher & Higher is her seventh CD, her newest addition to the interpretation of her father’s music.  Others have ventured into this area as well. Of note are four examples: the eclectic work of Ben Zion Solomon and sons, Give Me Harmony (1996) being among the best contributions; The Moshav Band (also known simply as Moshav) whose recordings combining indie rock and Middle Eastern flavor almost always include Carlebach’s music; C Lanzbom and Noah Solomon (also part of the group Soulfarm), who have released numerous vocal and instrumental interpretations of Carlebach’s music; and finally, the jazz guitarist Steve Peskoff, who is now mixing what promises to be an original rendition of avant-garde jazz interpretations of Carlebach music to be released in a CD entitled Radical Shlomo. Each interpreter lends his own taste and talents to Carlebach’s work and widens not only the music’s appeal but also its untapped potential.

Neshama gives Carlebach’s music a full vocal sound, and her soulful voice and original phrasing extends his music into a more popular mainstream genre. She is best when she sings his dirges. While she lacks the cantorial resonance of her father she compensates with her vocal range and depth. “Return Again,” a signature song for her, and “V’shamru” (a Sabbath song taken from Exodus 31:16,17, part of the Friday night liturgy) are the best examples on this compilation. Her collaborator and arranger David Morgan, who plays delicate keyboards and provides backup vocals in Higher & Higher, successfully brings out the strength in Neshama’s vocals. The truly original quality of Higher & Higher is its extensive use of The Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir, both as backup and accompanying vocals. The opening song “Heaven & Earth,” from Carlebach’s first recording in 1959, is a good illustration of the richness and potential of the choir’s vocal harmonies. The choir often gives the songs a revivalist flavor and the instrumental percussion in some of the songs, for example in “Hinei Kel,” opens them to African rhythms.  Carlebach was very taken by the soulfulness of African-American spirituals and gospel, and the choir, with Morgan’s arrangements, adds a gospel flavor to these interpretations. There are times when Neshama’s voice does not quite mesh with the gospel genre and one can hear a dissonance between her popular female vocalist style and the choir’s gospel and church roots. Neshama is more Mariah Carey than Aretha Franklin.

The set list is well-crafted. “Heaven & Earth,” “Higher & Higher,” “V’shamru,” and “Ki Va Moed” all lend themselves to the kind of large vocal interpretation that plays to Neshama’s strengths. The one original song by David Morgan, “The Real,” gives Neshama the opportunity to exhibit her diva potential, but it does not match the interpretive creativity of the Carlebach selections.

For those unfamiliar with Carlebach’s music this compilation offers a window into his liturgical songs arranged for mainstream consumption. For those intimately familiar with Carlebach’s music it offers an interesting example of the developing interpretive genre of his work, even as some purists might find it jarring.

It appears that in the years to come we will witness the continuation of these two phenomena: the release of previously unknown live recordings of Carlebach’s music and the interpretation of that music by a growing number of talented musicians who discover the distinctive quality of his creative genius. We have yet to see a Jewish musician who exclusively plays Jewish music to cross over into the mainstream of American music culture. Perhaps Matisyahu is the closest.  Early in his career, Carlebach came quite close as well, especially between 1960-1964 when he found a niche in the New York folk scene. Once that scene collapsed in the mid 1960s, he retreated back into the Jewish community where he remained.  The release of his unknown recordings will continue to enrich his Jewish listeners and give them more of what they already know. We do not yet know whether his interpreters will make another attempt to jump that formidable chasm separating Jewish music from American popular music. In any case, it is time for Jewish ethnomusicologists to start paying attention.

Shaul Magid, Indiana University/Bloomington

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