Faithful fans thought there would never be another Shlomo Carlebach, a composer whose simple, soulful tunes could draw out the spark in the most estranged Jews. At the Carlebach shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, however, a successor is working the same magic, using Carlebach’s tunes and some of his own. Mishpacha speaks with Yehuda Green, who has captured the music world with his melodies and message
he story of Shlomo Carlebach’s music is the story of American Jewry’s rediscovery of the energy in music. After sustaining a beating that had left it virtually lifeless back in Europe, and then coming to these shores and trying to make sense of the permissiveness and liberalism of America, the nation had lost some its richness, the vibrancy it had known in Europe.
A tired older generation watched helplessly as its children were swallowed up by this land … America.
Carlebach gave these children the tunes. He gave them songs that pulsated with joy and meaning, which had the ability to move hardened cynics and numb self-proclaimed non-believers. To be sure, there were notes of struggle and failure as he fought his own battles, something that resonated well with an audience of young warriors. Songs meant for the lost souls on the periphery found their way into the heart of the Jewish community. They traveled backwards from the college campuses to the yeshivos; from the streets of modern-day Sedom, they grew wings and traveled far to give strength to the Russian underground movement.
The paradox of Shlomo Carlebach. The man and his music. A man who struggled, who engendered wariness and wonder even as his music reached the depths of those who would doubt him. In time, even those who rejected him and his questionable habits would reach out for his songs, as if reaching for a raft in a stormy sea.
Then, just as the generation raised on his music and thoughts began to teach by themselves, he disappeared. The sun rose one morning on a world without Shlomo.
The hub of his activities, the Carlebach shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, carried on, each service and event a tribute to his music. Across the world, new minyanim, new shtieblach, new groups formed; “Carlebach” became a buzzword for a renewed approach to tefillah, for exuberance and concentration at the same time.
His music went from being well-liked to wildly popular. It exploded.
Many musicians saw him as their mentor; each possessed unique gifts and talents, different sparks from their master. Still, the hardened Carlebach fans swore there would never be another Shlomo. Until they heard the music of one Yehuda Green, and couldn’t help but bend their ears to listen. This was more than a spark from the master: the energy, the vitality, the fusion of melancholy and joy…it was all there.
His songs were water for parched souls, his unique voice, bouncing off the walls of the shul on the West Side, an echo of that voice. In time, they accepted him as the successor, the musical heir. Today, he leads the prayers in the shul, inspiring Yidden and carrying them ever so high, from the very amud where Carlebach stood. He gives them the Selichos they remember, the Hoshanah Rabbah for which their souls yearned.
Yehuda bears a physical resemblance to the Shlomo of the sixties, and his voice pulls people close the way his teacher’s did then. He, too, faces a generation in turmoil, and is confronted with a youth that grasps his songs with both hands, something holy in a world of impurity.
What’s the secret of Yehuda Green? Whence the vigor and dynamism? It’s a story that goes back to the great city of prewar Lublin, where there lived a young talmid of Rav Meir Shapiro named Yechiel Greenwald. In addition to being a man of learning, he was fluent in the works of the Polish rebbes, a man of spirit.
In prewar Poland, Breslover Chassidus did not enjoy the widespread acceptance it does today. Breslov Chassidim were scorned, and the seforim of Rebbe Nachman were largely ignored.
One Shabbos, the story goes, Reb Yechiel had to appear in court at noon. His own shtiebel wasn’t finished davening at that hour, so he searched out an early minyan in the chassidishe city of Lublin. There was a vasikin minyan, he learned, at the Breslover shtiebel. He warily joined the strange chassidim in their early-morning devotions. After davening, as is the custom in Breslov, an older chassid began to read from Rebbe Nachman’s Sippurei Maasiyos, stories full of mystical allusions and references. The guest at the shtiebel stood and listened, transfixed. His soul came alive as never before. The noon hour passed, and with it, his court appearance. Much later, someone pointed this out. “Reb Yechiel! You forgot about your court appearance, and it will cost you money you don’t have!”
Reb Yechiel shrugged. “It’s a small price to pay for a new life.”
It didn’t take long. Reb Yechiel liquidated his business and sold his home, leaving Poland behind and making the journey to Jerusalem, where he joined the Breslover chaburah. In time, he opened a factory, employing many of the Breslovers from Poland who wished to immigrate, emerging as a central figure in the Breslover kehillah. His grandson Yehuda grew up in those surroundings.
Yehuda’s earliest memories are of his youth in the apartment near the Mandelbaum Gate, memories of spirited Friday-night davening in the Breslover shul in Meah Shearim. “I remember sitting sleepily next to the zeideh, drifting off peacefully with the beautiful strains of ‘Lecha dodi’ surrounding me, the Zeideh Yechiel’s arm around my shoulders.”
Was that the first musical influence he encountered? “There were the niggunim in Breslov, and the niggunim in cheder. I attended the Chabad cheder in Meah Shearim, and the melamdim would teach us songs with great seriousness and intensity; the music of Breslov and Chabad together formed the background to everything.”
Breslov and Chabad. Soul-searching and joy, growth and buoyancy.
One day, when Yehuda was five years old, his life changed. “My older sister brought home a record, something new, from a Yid named Shlomo Carlebach. The first song I heard was Yiddish, ‘Gevaltshe brider vos shluft ihr,’ and I remember peering in through the plastic window of the record player, trying to see the man singing. I so badly wanted to connect with him.
“I had always listened to music. When I awoke in the morning, instead of eating breakfast, I would seize the opportunity to listen to music. When I returned home from school, it was straight to the record player. From that day on, I made a decision: only Shlomo. I listened to nothing else.”
One day, when Yehuda was eight, his family hosted a very special guest. “They told me it was Shlomo Carlebach himself, and he taught a new song in our house, ‘Mekimi meafar dal.’ It sure lifted me up!”
The years passed. “After my bar mitzvah, I had developed enough independence to search him out whenever he was in Eretz Yisrael. I would find him at the Kosel on Friday nights; I would listen enthralled as he davened ‘Moshe v’Aharon.’ Whenever I heard about a chasunah that he was leading, I would make sure to be there.”
“Come Sing with Me”
When did Reb Shlomo first become aware of Yehuda’s gift? “Much later. It was in 1980, and he was doing a kumzits in Golders Green, in London. I was working there at the time, with no intention of pursuing a career in music. Yet since Shlomo was in town, I joined the gathering. He was familiar with me from Jerusalem, and knew that I enjoyed singing. In the middle of a song, he looks at me and says ‘Yid’l, come sing with me.’ I was so shy that I only would sing from behind a curtain, so that I was obscured. That was the first time.”
A personal relationship developed as well. “I once went to visit him and noticed that he was holding the sefer Sippurei Maasiyos from Rebbe Nachman. I asked him about his connection to Breslov. He told me that when he was a child in Vienna, there lived a chassid whom they called ‘Moishele Gut Shabbos,’ and it was he who introduced Reb Shlomo to Breslov.”
Yehuda pauses and makes a point. “The popularity of Breslov today is largely thanks to Reb Shlomo, who brought the light of the chassidus to the wider public. In Breslov, no one refers to ‘Reb Nachman’; they either say ‘the Rebbe’ or ‘Rabbeinu.’ The fact that much of the world knows him as Reb Nachman is because that’s the way Shlomo used to refer to him.”
Yehuda would often drive his mentor home from performances and events. Once, he drove Reb Shlomo home, and there was someone else in the car.
“It was the middle of the night, and he was exhausted. I was anxious to get him back to his lodgings, but the other passenger asked to be dropped off first, although it meant going out of our way. I felt badly for Shlomo, especially when the fellow’s destination turned out to be difficult to find, in a confusing neighborhood. Finally, I found it and dropped him off, continuing with Reb Shlomo to his own accommodations. It really bothered me.
“Many years later, after Reb Shlomo had passed away, I met the Yid I had driven that night. ‘How could you do that to him?’ I asked. ‘You don’t understand,’ he said, ‘at the time, we really felt like he was our father and we were his children; it was the most natural thing in the world that he would want to see us home safely.’ That was the way we felt.”
The Point of Connection
Yehuda’s first recording venture had a rocky start. “In 1993, I recorded a few songs — some of my own, and some of his, including ‘Mimkomcha.’ I asked him for permission, and he said that he wanted to hear it first. I played it for him and he grimaced at the musical arrangements. I saw he didn’t like it, but I was scared to tell the arranger, who had invested much time and effort in the music. I was in a bind. Then, the arranger called me to tell me that there had been a fire in the studio and everything was gone.” He smiles, “A rebbishe maiseh!”
So Yehuda started again, inspired by the tragic passing of his beloved older sister, Batsheva. “When I was young, she would sing me to sleep every night, always with a song about the famous story with Reb Yisroel Salanter and the burning candle of his neighbor, ‘Kol zeman shehaner dolek.’ It was with her in mind that I wrote the song ‘The Candle Still Burns.’ It’s a song that describes the struggle to grow, how through falling, one can rise again.
“I booked some time in a studio, with musicians, so that I could record some new songs. When I arrived, they asked me for the notes of the songs we would be playing. I told them I have no notes, just a tune in my head. They looked at me as if I was crazy. Then, I started to sing. It was Shlomo’s nusach for Kiddush, with ‘Shalom aleichem’ — and their eyes opened wide. They listened to the song, once, twice, and the studio was filled with the most heavenly music. The whole experience was supernatural. I had so little money with which to pay them: they wanted even less.”
As Yehuda’s recordings began to spread, his name gained some renown. His fate was sealed one Chol HaMoed Succos, however, when he visited the Carlebach shul in Manhattan, and sat and sang in the succah that had once sheltered his master. The niggun was ‘V’zocher chasdei avos,’ and the crowd sang along. When he was finished, he received a message that Rebbetzin Hadassah — Shlomo Carlebach’s sister-in-law, the wife of Reb Eli Chaim Carlebach — wanted a word with him. He stepped out and she told him, “We need you here, in the shul.”
He came. By the next Rosh HaShanah, he was leading Musaf. His Friday-night davening began to draw Yidden from all over, some of them coming and leaving in cars, but nevertheless reciting Kabbalas Shabbos with tears streaming down their cheeks. He had found the point of connection.
A Holy Mission
Today, as Yehuda has grown evermore popular and in demand, it has become necessary for one of his good friends to manage his bookings and events. Aaron Zutler, a veteran of the Jewish music scene, was captivated the first time he heard a relatively unknown Yehuda, and he was determined to bring this gift to the world. “I first heard Yehuda a few years back at a show in honor of Reb Shlomo’s yahrtzeit. There were many entertainers who performed beautifully, but when Yehuda got on that stage, I sensed that this was something special,” Aaron recounts.
“The next day, there was another scheduled concert in Shlomo’s honor. I called Yehuda and introduced myself over the phone. I said, ‘You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but I heard you last night and your singing had such an amazing effect on me. Can I please join you with my guitar on stage at tonight’s concert?’ Without missing a beat, Yehuda said, ‘Why not, that would be so great!’ We connected from that evening on.”
Since then, Aaron has been a fixture on the stage, strumming along as Yehuda and the chevra energize audiences. He has become the “go-to-guy” for Yehuda, and the demand has been overwhelming.
Isn’t it strange, I ask, for a memalei makom (heir apparent) of Shlomo, who was legendarily altruistic and selfless with his time, to have a booking agent? Aaron laughs. “Yehuda is no different, believe me, and no one is getting rich here. It’s about connecting and strengthening Yidden. I cannot tell you how many times I’m called and asked if I can bring Yehuda to a hospital room, a bedside in a home, or a facility where he might be able to be mechazek an ailing Yid.”
Aaron recalls a chassan and kallah who were injured in a car accident during their week of sheva brachos. The chassan was in serious condition, and someone asked him how they could enhance his week of sheva brachos. He could barely speak, but he asked if perhaps Yehuda Green could come and sing for him. “I was notified of the request and I told Yehuda the story. ‘Ahreleh,’ he said, ‘lets go, quick!’
“What a night that was! I have played at weddings for twenty years, but I have never tasted what it means to be mesameach a chassan and kallah until that night in the hospital. That’s who Yehuda is and what he does best. In fact, working with the dedicated volunteers at the various organizations that work to bring simchah to Yidden is what inspired Yehuda to write the song that has since become a classic, ‘V’chol mi sheoskim b’tzarchei tzibbur b’emunah.’
Aaron has worked tirelessly to “promote” Yehuda, but he is, in a sense, unpromotable. “Conventional business values mean nothing to him: he is on a holy mission.Yehuda just has this extreme energy, this koach to break through barriers.” Aaron shares an incident that has undertones of Carlebach. “This summer, we were in a largely secular neighborhood for Shabbos, and Yehuda was doing a concert just after Havdalah. Suffice it to say that the crowd wasn’t the most observant that we’ve ever played to. I suggested that he do some Shlomo classics, like ‘Am Yisroel chai’ or ‘Esa einai.’
Aaron laughs. “He totally ignored me, proceeding to sing a lengthy, moving Havdalah, with ‘Gott fun Avrohom’ and ‘Hamavdil.’ I was sure he would lose everyone, but it was clear that he had moved them into a new dimension. The sobbing was audible.
“Later, I asked him how come he had chosen to do that. He said to me, ‘Ahrele, you see them coming to shul in cars: I see their zeidehs in Auschwitz, hear their final tefillos, sense the dormant holiness within this audience.’”
Bring Along the Bochurim
I ask Yehuda about the success of his music with yeshivah bochurim. “I can only tell you that bochurim were always a part of it. My very first ‘concert’ was a Shabbos bar mitzvah that a secular Yid, who had heard me davening at Carlebach, asked me to attend. It was being held in an Israeli hotel, so I told him I would need seudos for a group. He ordered special kosher ones, from Rav Landau, just for us. On Friday afternoon, I went to one of the largest yeshivos in Jerusalem and I opened the doors to my van. ‘Come, bochurim, we are going to be mekabel Shabbos on the Caesaria beach.’ They thought for a moment, but only for a moment. What a Shabbos it was!”
Yehuda recalls a Motzaei Shabbos impromptu kumzits, on a street corner in Bayit Vegan. “We were sitting, a group of bochurim and myself, and a niggun came to me. I taught it to them, and we sang it, but then I lost it. One of the bochurim who was there, however — his name is Mottele — met me and played me a recording of the evening from his cellphone. He gave me back that niggun, which is on my album as ‘Im eshkochech.’ ”
The conversation turns to what is arguably the song that has transformed Yehuda Green into a household name: “Nishmas kol chai.”
“A friend told me about this group that gathers nightly at the Kosel to recite the heilige tefillah of Nishmas together, as a unit, and how it’s a segulah for good things. I went and it captured me: the seriousness, the power, the sheer emotion of a minyan of Yidden expressing themselves. I heard them and the song came out of me. That’s why, on the album, I open with a clip of the actual sounds of Nishmas at the Kosel, beginning with the kulam b’yachad.”
Which song of Reb Shlomo’s does Yehuda consider his personal favorite? Of course, that’s a tough question, but he obligingly answers. “I find that his ‘Eishes chayil’ touches me in a very deep place.”
I ask Yehuda if he strives to imitate Shlomo, or to expand upon Reb Shlomo. “We are only trying to carry on his work. Of course, I have my own interpretation of his music — all the talmidim have their own personal stamp — but he is the background to all of it. People comment that I sing the Berditchever niggun at a different pace then he sang it. What shall I do? That is how it appears to me! There is also a clear Breslov influence on my music; it’s who I am. He encouraged us to be individuals, right?”
And he closes with a beautiful thought. “The Rebbe, Reb Nachman, said that his fire will burn until Mashiach comes. I say that Shlomo’s music will play until Mashiach comes!”
here are many fans of Shlomo Carlebach’s music. Here, some prominent fans share their own personal favorites in the Carlebach repertoire.
Rabbi Moshe Grylak, editor-in-chief, Mishpacha Magazine:
I will share something personal. More than a half-century ago, a group of us bochurim traveled from the Ponevezher yeshivah to the Galilee, where we hoped to influence the new immigrants who were placed in camps there. Our group included Rav Menachem Cohen, today a member of this magazine’s editorial board, and others. We were called Peylim, and our goal was to convince as many of the Yidden as we were able to send their children to Torah schools, and to encourage them to withstand the relentless campaign by the left, who were prepared to do anything to claim these children as their own.
On our trips, there was always a strong undercurrent of fear, for there were stories of the counselors at these camps, and how they had beaten the determined yeshivah bochurim who would dare enter their territory.
So when we felt scared, we would sing the new songs of Shlomo Carlebach, particularly “Al tira m’pachad pisom,” which would strengthen us. Another favorite was “Haneshama lach” which was our plea to Hashem to be compassionate with us, “chusah al amalach.”
Besides the famous tune for “Mimkomcha,” which is sung in shuls all over, there is a slower, more classical piece for the same words. That song touches me in a special way.
Mordechai Ben David
Over the years I’ve sung many of Shlomo Carlebach’s songs all over the world and I’ve had the honor of sharing the stage with him many times, even singing a duet with him at the HASC concert. His warmth and love captured everyone’s heart. He was certainly a legendary composer and singer whose many hit songs will live on forever, and are sung at Yiddishe simchos all over the world. There is no way I can pick one particular song of Reb Shlomo as my favorite; there are simply so many great ones.
I have always felt kind of a kinship with Reb Shlomo, and one of my great regrets is that I never met him in person. It is impossible to choose one particular song that I consider a favorite, because all his compositions — from “Orech yamim,” to “Gam ki eilech” — are really one song, one expression of his soul. That’s why many of them are similar too each other. He wasn’t trying to be innovative or different, just to express what he was feeling.
Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, editor-in-chief, Yated Ne’eman:
My favorite tune is “Nachamu ami.” When you hear Reb Shlomo visualizing those eternal words, you can just see the Navi Yeshayahu on a street corner in Jerusalem comforting the broken people. Those eternal words come alive and bring solace to people mourning the Churban today.
My favorite Carlebach song is “Mimkomcha,” the “other one,” which is slower and more classical.
Yossi Toiv, aka “Country Yossi”:
In the late fifties my uncle Reb Dovid Toiv organized a small gathering one Motzaei Shabbos, featuring a special guitar-playing rabbi who he was friendly with. It turned out to be the first public performance by the now-legendary Shlomo Carlebach. Many years later when I asked Reb Shlomo about it, he recalled wide-eyed, “Yes, Reb Dovid’l is a holy man!” My uncle taught the family “Esa einai.” which he learned that night, and which eventually become a Carlebach classic.
Stephen Savitsky, president of the Orthodox Union:
I was a big fan of Reb Shlomo’s, and still feel his niggunim reach the neshamah like no one else’s can. My favorite niggun is “Nachamu ami,” as it is my bar mitzvah haftarah.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn:
In the year 2003, 120 Yidden and I stood at the kever achim in the town of Kelm, Lithuania, where the Kelm yeshivahleit and townsfolk were massacred, slaughtered, and buried in a mass grave. Rav Dessler and others have written how the Kelm Yidden marched to their deaths with song on their lips and emunah in the souls. As we cried and said Tehillim for their sacred souls, Dr. Nachum Goldwasser of Miami led all of us in the Carlebach niggun of “Gam ki eilech” – “Though I walk in the valley overshadowed by death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Tehillim 23:4). The haunting tune, with its searing words that we sang together, made that poignant moment one of most moving experiences of my life.
Rabbi Abba Dunner, executive director, Conference of European Rabbis:
My favorite Carlebach tune is “Borchi nafshi.” It reminds me of when he came to London for the first time in the early fifties and we all sat on the floor of the front room of his uncle, Rabbi Heini Cohn, z”l. He sang that song again and again and we were fascinated.
Rabbi Baruch Chait:
It is difficult to answer which niggun is the most memorable, because that depends on the time. I think that Reb Shlomo was of the opinion that “Lemaan achai” was one of his strongest.
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, outreach activist and founder of the annual Jewlicious Festival:
I used to walk around Poland with an old Walkman in small towns, and buses and trains. I had a few old tapes of Reb Shlomo that I would keep in my backpack as I searched for old cemeteries, shuls, signs of Jewish life. I first began working with the small Jewish community in Poland as a song leader at summer and winter retreats. We played all kinds of classic camp songs, but the one song that I brought that seemed to touch all hearts, which we could sing over and over again, was “Esa einai.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 286)