Shlomo Carlebach at his 1960s base of operations, the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco
Shlomo Carlebach at his 1960s base of operations, the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco

How to purge the music of Shlomo Carlebach in the age of #MeToo

Our new awakening to the reality of systemic misogyny and sexual harassment has led, inevitably, to a renewed conversation in American Judaism about the music and misdeeds of composer, performer, teacher and idol Shlomo Carlebach. Since his death in 1994, dozens of women have bravely come forward to tell stories of sexual abuse at his hands — most notably in a now-legendary 1998 article in Lilith that chronicled his legacy of sexual abuse.

His music is everywhere in contemporary Jewish worship. Indeed, many service-goers mistake his tunes for old, traditional ones. But they were written in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, many of them here in San Francisco, where he was a fixture in the Jewish corners of the counterculture movement. That is why, particularly here in the Bay Area, where he worked and where many of his victims still live, we need a serious reckoning with the ubiquity of his music in Jewish liturgical spaces.

It would be simpler if his music could simply be avoided, like, say, the comedy of Louis C.K. Disgusted by him? Don’t watch his comedy. But if you’re disgusted by Carlebach, you’re screwed; many synagogue services are so replete with his music that they are off-putting to those who disliked, or felt harmed by, the man himself. In many communities, for example, Carlebach is synonymous with Kabbalat Shabbat. His Psalm 95 is Psalm 95, and so on.

I have spoken in recent months with a number of service leaders who are actively looking for alternatives. It’s a daunting task. It’s even hard to tell, as a service leader, which music is his.

But I have some good news for prayer leaders who wish to root his work out of their communities: There is life after Carlebach!

Here are six ideas to get you started:

1. Join “ANYTHING but Carlebach.

Earlier this year, my friend and rabbinical student Lauren Tuchman posted on Facebook, asking for some new non-Carlebach tunes. The response to her post was so overwhelming that she and I started a Facebook group to, as we wrote in the group’s rules, “Share and discuss Jewish liturgical music — literally *anything* but Carlebach.” It’s a very active group, full of knowledgeable people, with new questions, conversations and new/obscure finds every day.

2. Incorporate more female composers.

Believe it or not, Debbie Friedman was not the only woman composing Jewish liturgical music (not to diminish her importance). The supposed dearth of Jewish women doing this work is now a total myth, and there’s no place for the complaint that it’s hard to find them and their music. I asked the ABC crowd for their favorites. Here are a few:

Nava Tehila is a Jerusalem prayer community/music collective whose music is becoming pretty popular of late. One of the group’s composers is Daphna Rosenberg, who is also a vocalist and guitarist. (I wrote about their visit to the Bay Area last year.) If you’re looking for replacements for the Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat canon, look no further.

Rabbi Miriam Margles. I only recently became aware of her via her earworm of a tune for Adon Olam. It has been stuck in my head since August.

Deborah Sacks Mintz is the knock-’em-dead voice you hear on some of Joey Weisenberg’s best recordings. But she’s also a composer in her own right. Sacks Mintz hasn’t published much so far, but what she has put out there is terrific, and I expect we’ll hear a lot more from her in coming years.

Cantor Basya Schechter. The Lecha Dodi she recorded with her band Pharaoh’s Daughter is criminally underused; it pains me. In addition to her recorded music, you can also check her out at Romemu, an emergent synagogue in New York, where she is the cantor.

Rabbi Shefa Gold. Gold is a leader in the Renewal movement, and her music has been a big part of the Renewal community (and others) for a long time. If you’ve spent much time checking out services around the Bay, you’ve certainly heard some of her music — repeating, elevating sacred chants that focus on one line or a few words. Her Ashrei is the tune I encounter most often.

Kohenet Taya Shere. Shere (who also goes by Taya Mâ) is local to the Bay and one of the co-founders and co-leaders of Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. She also started the Makam Shekhina community of Hebrew priestesses and Sufi dervishes. On her website, she calls her latest album “Hebrew goddess chant. Lush world beats.”

Peri Smilow. I don’t know much of her music, but Smilow’s tune for Ashrei is killer, and always a pleasant surprise when I encounter it in the wild.

3. There are many places online to go looking for new and unfamiliar music.

One of my favorites is the website of Mechon Hadar, the vanguard organization of Traditional Egalitarian Judaism. The “Tefillah & Music” section of its site is an almost overwhelming storehouse of liturgical music, much of it pretty obscure. It’s easy to navigate, organized by prayer and service.

4. Start with Kabbalat Shabbat.

Investigate the tunes your community sings during this introductory portion of the Friday evening service. Nine times out of 10, there’s some Carlebach in there — perhaps all of it. Seeking out new tunes for this portion of the service will go a long way.

5. Visit other communities.

If your community is heavy on Carlebach, try visiting some others in your area to see what they do. We at J. have a couple great resources for finding other options in the Bay Area to check out.

6. Accept that you can’t accomplish this overnight.

The greatest difficulty in rooting out Carlebach’s music is simply identifying it. His catalog is extensive, and many of his tunes are used for multiple prayers. Even the most knowledgeable service leaders I know are occasionally caught off-guard when they learn that Carlebach wrote a particular tune. Start by bringing in new stuff, and trust in the patience of your community and knowledge of its musical leaders. Let yourself sort it out as you go. And enjoy the journey into new music.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky