Browsing a Judaica shop in Lakewood this afternoon in advance of Passover, I came across a new biography of one of the more enigmatic figures on the 20th century modern Orthodox Jewish scene. I was intrigued to see that the author of this work was Nathan Offenbacher, a fellow former Philadelphian who graduated one year later from the same high school and college as I did. After emigrating to the Holy Land, Nathan took on an Israeli identity going by the name Natan Ophir.
Ophir’s work is thoroughly researched, and a very enjoyable read. To his credit, Natan doesn’t shy away from controversy, and Carlebach generated his fair share. There is no denying the man’s talent and cult-like following in his lifetime. When I was growing up I heard stories of how he used to hang around the Catskills and play in the lobby of hotels such as The Pioneer before management would ask him to leave. This is the way I remember “The Grateful Reb”.
It is easy to visualize Ophir’s description that during the 1967 Summer of Love in California Shlomo discovered the incredible power of hugs. Hugging became his trademark, and when he entered a concert hall he would hug and greet each person before ascending to the stage. It was sometime in the late 1960s when I went to a Carlebach concert at Gratz College in Philadelphia, which provided an intimate setting in its relatively small auditorium. I was taken aback when after the concert Reb Shlomo handed a piece of paper with his phone number to a young woman who I knew, and told her to call him at his hotel that evening.
This, apparently, was not an isolated episode. When a play about Carlebach’s life hit Broadway a couple of years ago, some wondered aloud if it did not overly glamorize the man’s life. Others went so far as to suggest that the play should be banned given allegations of abuse reported by some women who attended his concerts. The issues are deep and complex, as evidenced here. In his conclusion, Ophir writes:
“In trying to arrive at definitive conclusions, I conducted long hours of in-depth interviews. Many people who had been close to Shlomo over extended periods of time stated emphatically that the allegations are incorrect, reflect tabloid journalism, and it is immoral to assail a person not alive to defend himself. But others were harsh in their criticism. They cited stories to prove that Sholmo acted wrongly and that some women were hurt emotionally. After listening carefully and examining the stories in an attempt to determine their veracity, eventually I decided to leave room for other writers to undertake the challenging tasks of judge or jury.”