Holy Beggars: A Dramatic Moment with Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach
by Aryae Coopersmith, Apr 10, 2011
Shlomo Carlbach and Aryae Coopersmith -1969
Holy Beggars was published in 2011. A copy came into my hands recently and reading it brought back the years I lived in San Francisco. I was among the thousands that gathered in Golden Gate Park during the famous “Summer of Love” in 1967. A short walk to Haight Street was part of my daily routine. I’d come to SF soon after college graduation and landed in the middle of the patchouli-scented, bell-bottomed psychedelia dubbed “the Hippie Revolution.” I have my own stories from that era, and none include contact with the House of Love and Prayer. But Coopersmith’s account of a young man’s adventures with the charismatic rabbi and his own search for a real spiritual life have such a ring of truth, it took me back to those incomparable days. His evocation of Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach made me long to meet the man. And, in reading Holy Beggars, it feels as if I have. That’s a gift. This excerpt describes an unforgettable encounter that took place at the newly established House of Love and Prayer. —R. Whittaker
From Coopersmith’s introduction to the book:
Listen to me, my darling friends; open up your hearts. Every day, every second, God is sending us messages. The only thing is, the messages come on different levels. One level is the fact: the fact can only reach as far as the mind. Then there’s the story: the story reaches past the mind to the heart. But the deepest of all is the melody: the melody reaches all the way to the soul.
— Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, House of Love and Prayer, 1968
In human history there are times and places where the infinite intersects with the finite. I picture the finger of God poking through the fabric of the universe, causing all kinds of disruptions. There may or may not be outer events: thunder and lightning, eclipses and earthquakes, ecstatic crowds and divine revelation. But the real story is silent, invisible, a shift in the nature of reality.
For some of us living in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in the 1960s, this was one of those times. For us it wasn’t about the “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” It was about the spiritual teachers from all over the world, and the young people from all over the U.S., who converged here to find each other. It was about sharing a brief moment in the infinite presence of God’s finger, which was then breaking into the finite world. Our lives were changed forever.
I was drawn to these teachers–and the vision they offered of changing our lives and changing the world. I did yoga with Swami Satchidananda, danced and chanted “Hari Krishna” with Swami Baktivadanta, and did Sufi dancing with Murshid Sam Lewis. But the teacher I eventually found to connect with and learn with–my teacher–was a Hasidic rabbi turned folk singer: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
During the Summer of Love in 1967, Shlomo (he insisted that we call him simply “Shlomo”) began talking about starting a house in San Francisco, which he called “the city of tomorrow.” There, young spiritual seekers, not only from Jewish backgrounds, but from any background, could come and find a home, and friends to walk with them on their journey. One day when a few of us were walking on Haight Street, he said, “Let’s call it the House of Love and Prayer.”
“What is a House of Love and Prayer?” I asked.
He thought about this a minute, then looked at us and answered. “When you walk in, someone loves you and when you walk out, someone misses you.”
Months later there was still no House Love and Prayer. Shlomo was busy traveling, giving concerts to packed houses around the world. A Christian friend told me that maybe it was my job to start the House. I accepted his advice, miracles happened, and a month later, in April 1968, I had rented a beautiful old three-story Georgian house on Arguello Boulevard in San Francisco.
I phoned up Shlomo in New York to give him the news. He added it to his business cards, which he passed out at his concerts everywhere, and before we knew it, people were flooding in through our doors.
The most special times at the House were when Shlomo could be with us when he passed through San Francisco on his travels. And the most special of those times were on Shabbos, the Jewish Sabbath, when hundreds of people and teachers from all backgrounds would join us for our celebrations. We shared in the magic of bringing what Shlomo called “the great day of love and peace,” the day that we’re yearning for and dreaming of, into the world.
Chapter 19 - “Fixing the Heart”
—in which a great divide is crossed in a moment of great drama and inspiration...
I watch Shlomo’s lips moving and try to understand what he’s saying.
In the dancing light of a hundred candles, people are pressed together in the prayer room with arms around each other, two hundred of us, swaying like leaves on a single tree, blown gently back and forth by the winds of heaven. We seem to be dancing with the candlelight. The room is filled with the silence, punctuated only by the sounds of breathing, and an occasional creak from the floor. Young men with long hair, young women with longer hair, dancing waves of color, kippahs, shawls, panchos, serapes, beads, rainbows, and tie-died mandalas.
I can see Moishe and Maxine, and Marv and Bernice dressed more conventionally, with all of their kids, standing in the outer circle.
Efraim is on my right. His eyes are closed as he sways from side to side with great intensity, shoulders tight, slightly hunched over, dancing to a different rhythm. I touch his shoulder lightly, so I can connect with him even as my body is swaying with the rest of the circle. He smells like patchouli oil, the way Shlomo smells on Shabbos.
Shlomo, standing on Efraim’s right, is rocking forward and back, his hands clasped in front of him, lips moving very rapidly, silently. He is wearing a freshly starched white shirt, accented with several strings of colorful beads around his neck, and dark suit pants. His eyes look out through half-closed lids, rapidly scanning the room.
I see Sarah standing in the wide doorway at the entrance to the prayer room. Ever since we met last fall there’s been a spark between us. I’ve been trying my best to pretend that what I feel for her is the same as what I feel for the other women at the House. She smiles at me and then looks away.
It’s only been two months since I moved in and we opened our doors, seven weeks since Ruthie joined me, and six weeks since Efraim and Leah arrived. Everything’s been happening so quickly. Shlomo has added the House of Love and Prayer to his business cards. He hands them out wherever he goes and invites everyone to come for Shabbos.
We’ve just been singing and dancing “Lekha Dodi” for the holy Shabbos Bride. Her spirit is here in the room, filling us with love as we all hold each other. We don’t need prayer books, because Shlomo is saying the prayers for all of us. He doesn’t need a book because all of it is engraved in his memory. The prayer book, and the entire Torah, is inside Shlomo and pours forth from him effortlessly. Maybe if we stay with him and open ourselves enough, the Torah will pour into us, and will be inside of us too.
Even more jarring than the sound, even more than the loudness breaking the silence, is the accent. Businesslike, demanding, intrusive, like the cold light of a policeman’s flashlight startling a young couple in a car.
I look up toward the doorway in the back. There is a man in his fifties, just a little older than my father, slim, medium height, with grey hair, wearing a dark business suit, glasses, and a black knit kippah. The contrast between this dark figure and the rainbow of people in the room couldn’t be starker. He is standing very still and straight, looking right at Shlomo. The room is quiet.
Moving himself between worlds, as though being dragged out of a dream, Shlomo stops davening and looks up. “Yeah?”
“Rabbi Carlebach, what are you doing?”
Shlomo looks at him uncomprehendingly. “What do you mean?”
The man waves his arm, gesturing at all of us in the room, as though the transgression were too obvious, and too grievous, to even be mentioned. “This! You’re an Orthodox rabbi. You should know better!”
The swaying of the circles has stopped. All eyes are on Shlomo. The room is silent.
“What is your name?” he asks the man. He sounds genuinely interested, curious.
“My name is Irving Solomon,” he says, “and I’m president of an Orthodox shul here in town. Rabbi Carlebach,” he says, gesturing again at all of us, “you know that boys and girls, men and women touching each other like this—this isn’t really Judaism. You know that men and women have to be separated during prayer! Why aren’t you showing them the real thing?”
Shlomo’s eyes are open very wide. I’ve been learning how to lead services by watching him, and by watching Efraim. It’s about working with the energy in the room so people can experience oneness with each other. It’s not so hard when everyone is with you, supporting you. But how do you bring forth the spirit of love and harmony and oneness when someone is challenging you? Everyone is looking at these two men.
No one moves for what seems like a long time. Finally Shlomo steps toward the man. “Why are you standing so far away, my friend?” he says. “Why don’t you come a little closer?” The people standing near him step back, and a path appears between him and Shlomo. Irving Solomon looks around a little hesitantly, and then steps forward. The two of them are standing in the middle of the room, facing each other. We’re all standing still. The room is silent.
Shlomo looks at everyone around the room. “Listen to me, my friends,” he says. “This is very important. I want you to meet my friend Irving Solomon. And I want you to know that this is mammash, the sweetest Yid in the world.”
Irving Solomon, alone and isolated in his dark suit, looks at the rainbow sea around him, then back at Shlomo.
“You know, you’re right,” Shlomo says to him. “But some things are more important than being right.”
“Imagine if a patient comes into the emergency room, God forbid, with a heart attack, and the doctor says, ‘His toenails are crooked; I better straighten them out.’ What would you say? Stupid, right?” Shlomo’s voice gets higher and louder. His eyes are bulging. “Today we’re losing a whole generation of our children! Their hearts and souls are literally dying. And what does the so-called ‘Jewish establishment’ say? They want to straighten out their toe nails!”
He looks around at all of us. We still have our arms around each other. The flickering lights from a hundred candles dance all over the ceiling. Shlomo’s voice is softer now. “Maybe some day we’ll have time to take our kids and work on their toe nails,” he says. “I don’t know. But right now we have something more important to do. We have to mammash connect with their hearts.”
All eyes are now on Irving Solomon. Standing by himself in the middle of the room, he looks around uncertainly. Efraim looks over at me and smiles. The room is silent. Irving takes off his jacket. He carefully folds it over his arm, and looks around for a place to put it. Maxine steps up behind him and says something to him. He hands her the jacket. He looks again at Shlomo, then around the room at all of us. No one says anything. He takes off his tie, carefully folding it and putting it in his pocket. Now he has on a white shirt with an open collar, just like Shlomo. Shlomo looks at him and smiles. As he steps back toward the circle, a young man and a young woman step sideways to make room for him. Irving Solomon puts one arm around each of them. Leah is standing toward the back of the room, her hands clasped together, her eyes looking upward, sighing.
Shlomo starts a soft melody, and we all begin singing. The melody is slow, gentle. It gradually gets more energetic and faster. Soon we’re dancing again. The floor of the prayer room bounces up and down as we jump. The Queen is back in the room, shining, dancing with us all. Oneness and love radiate everywhere. Although it’s very late, the room is filled with energy, enough for two hundred people to keep dancing for a long, long time. We dance; then we stop and hum softly, or just stand in silence for a while; then we dance again. Somehow, in a way where I’m only partly aware of it, Shlomo manages to slip in all the Friday night Shabbos prayers.
Around 1:30 in the morning Shlomo tells us it’s time for Kiddush. He asks Irving to stand next to him. Leah makes her way through the crowd carrying a silver tray with a silver wine goblet and a square bottle of Manischewitz wine.