New books: Two larger-than-life leaders who broke the mold

It is rather incredible that “Arik,” David Landau’s new biography of Ariel Sharon, was released on Jan. 10, just one day before Sharon’s death following eight years in a coma. The voluminous book offers the opportunity to look anew at the complicated legacy of one of Israel’s most important and divisive leaders.

As a left-leaning Orthodox Jew, Landau, the former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, would seem an unlikely biographer of the proudly secular warrior and farmer whose political career was attached to the rise of Israel’s right wing. But Landau’s account is remarkably balanced and takes full advantage of his access to insiders in Israel’s government and military.

The book follows Sharon’s participation in all of Israel’s conflicts, starting in 1948. As a military leader, his penchant for independence and overzealousness could yield successes — as when he boldly led his armored division across the Suez Canal to cut off the Egyptian army, bringing about an end to the Yom Kippur War in 1973 — or disaster, as when he insisted on capturing the Mitla Pass during the 1956 Sinai campaign, against his superiors’ judgment, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of dozens of Israeli soldiers.

Landau’s account of Sharon’s five years as Israel’s prime minister depicts his shifts from some of the hard-line positions he had championed. As one of the chief proponents of building Jewish settlements in territories gained in 1967, Sharon surprised many by acknowledging the inevitability of a Palestinian state and, in a 2003 speech to the Likud caucus in the Knesset, rejecting “the idea that we can continue to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation.”

The very use of the word “occupation” ripped at the heart of the Likud Party that Sharon had helped build. And his ensuing decision to disengage unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 was met with further shock and opposition from his political base. Landau struggles to understand the motivations behind Sharon’s changing beliefs and tactics, but he considers them a source of hope for Israel’s future.

Natan Ophir’s “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy” is another well-timed biography, with interest in the rabbi renewed as a result of “Soul Doctor,” last year’s surprisingly successful Broadway musical based on Carlebach’s life. This extraordinarily researched book stands alone as a comprehensive record of his career, but its appeal to general readers will be hampered by its laborious degree of detail.

There was perhaps no rabbi in the past century with as wide a reach as Carlebach. The odds are that if you’re reading this article, you’ve sung his melodies whether or not you know it (the most ubiquitous is perhaps “Am Yisrael Chai,” but many of his tunes are liturgical staples in both liberal and Orthodox settings). But, as Ophir shows, the impact of his work went much further than the spreading of melodies.

Carlebach began his career in the 1950s as an emissary for the Lubavitcher rebbe as part of Chabad’s program to bring nonobservant Jews back to Judaism. Discovering the power of song and armed with a guitar, he made music and storytelling the centerpiece of his outreach. Feeling hobbled by the boundaries that prevented men and women from singing together, he soon parted ways with Chabad.

In the mid-1960s, Carlebach found a new audience in hippies who were thirsting for a more profound spiritual connection. In 1968, the House of Love and Prayer was established in San Francisco’s Richmond District to serve as one of Carlebach’s bases — a heretofore unimaginable merging of the counterculture with an embrace of religious devotion, Torah study and making aliyah (those with interest in this era may want to read Aryae Coopersmith’s memoir, “Holy Beggars: A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem”).

Ophir recounts Carlebach’s subsequent outreach efforts around the globe, highlighting his unprecedented 1989 tour of the Soviet Union, where he reached tens of thousands of Jews in synagogues and concert halls two years before the fall of the Communist state.

It is to the author’s credit that he acknowledges the claims of sexual improprieties that surfaced after Carlebach’s death in 1994. But I am disappointed Ophir elects not to discuss these accusations further. He notes that it is difficult to determine their veracity because “events of a few decades ago are problematic to reconstruct accurately based merely on oral memories.” But I would counter that such memories, drawn from interviews with dozens of Carlebach’s disciples and colleagues, already form the basis of a huge portion of this book.

I am sympathetic to the difficulty Ophir must have had with this issue. As an Orthodox rabbi himself, he is mindful of the Jewish value of refraining from speaking ill of the dead, who cannot defend themselves. And, as he notes, “the most prominent ethical message in Shlomo’s legacy is to refrain from caustic judgments.”

Ultimately, though, I’m bothered that the voices of those women who had the courage to call attention to Carlebach’s alleged indiscretions do not get heard. This echoes a pattern of marginalizing the accuser that we’ve seen far too often in the religious world, including the Jewish one.

And for people like me, who are inclined to believe the complaints about Carlebach’s behavior, but who also have great positive feelings for his legacy, the need for resolution is best served by confronting this issue directly.

“Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon” by David Landau (656 pages, Knopf, $35)

“Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy” by Natan Ophir (503 pages, Urim, $39.95)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.