by Geoffrey Clarfield (December 2011)
“Geoffrey, it's Shlomo. Meet me at Bathurst and Eglinton in thirty minutes. We're going to play for the Sufis!”
This was not the first time I had received what I used to call “the call.” I do not mean Max Weber's theory of the Protestant basis of the modern psychological calling, that draws an individual to his or her profession, but that semi frantic, always warm hearted voice that was part Shtetl and part hip San Francisco and belonged to the only psychedelic Rabbi I have every known and worked with, that spiritual wonder worker, Shlomo Carlebach.
This was not the first time I had played with Shlomo. He was always in demand in the Toronto Jewish community. He was the Dionysus among a community of worshippers of Apollo, a community so powerfully influenced by the then Anglo Canadian norms of its environment that the largest Reform Synagogue in the country, and which is in Toronto, had a belfry, without a bell. As kids we called it “the Church on the Hill.”
Shlomo was often called to sing at Israeli Independence Day celebrations or at Holocaust memorial days or, at special events where normally staid synagogues were transformed by dancing chains of Jewish teenagers, intuitively liberated from the burden of the law and hand in hand, charging through the isles of buildings whose marble and shining glass had not been equaled since the time of the second temple.
Somewhere during those years when it was “in” to have Shlomo on board and the doctors and lawyers of the Jewish community were willing to experience a modern Chassid, I was the fiddler that accompanied him, except during the early seventies I played the guitar.
I had first seen Shlomo perform at a Saturday evening event at an orthodox synagogue in Toronto, the new Sharei Shamayim, a synagogue that my paternal grandparents had helped found. At that time my knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history was minimal. I was twelve years old.
Then I had only my eyes and ears to tell me what existed. I concluded that Judaism consisted of large synagogues with rabbis from New York that were filled once or twice a year. That was the length and breadth of my Jewish experience.
I new nothing of the Rambam. I had not read the Kuzari nor had I any idea of what Zionism was. My understanding of the Holocaust was confined to Walter Cronkite's TV documentaries, The Twentieth Century. I had not read the Bible, either.
Shlomo sang in Yiddish and Hebrew and at times reached a point of ecstasy, which compelled him to jump up and down, playing his guitar, singing and closing his eyes as he communed with the Almighty. For those of any religious persuasion who have seen or stood near people with faith, his belief in a divine creator was incontrovertible. For a few moments I lost my newly won teenage cynicism and newfound agnosticism and marveled at his belief in the God of our Fathers.
“You know Geoffrey, I was at a conference.” he said as he hopped into my car, guitar in hand.
“What kinds of conferences do Rabbis go to these days Shlomo?” I asked.
“It was a conference of Rabbis, Priests, Pastors, Gurus, Qadis, you name it, they were there!”
“What did you talk to them about?”
“Yiddishkeit of course!” Shlomo replied. He went on, “You know Jesus was a Rabbi and Mohammed knew about the Torah and the Gurus, well they are great, but none of them had what I had and that was Yiddishkeit. And you know, when I shared it with them, they loved it! We danced all night long – powerful stuff, Barukh ha Shem (Blessed be the name)”
“Shlomo, so tell me, are we going to one of those interfaith things tonight?”
“No, not at all, we're going to play for the Sufis!”
And then as we drove through the falling snow of that Toronto winter he started humming one of his new tunes, beautiful tunes, reminiscent of the Shtetl but Mediterranean in flavor, perhaps influenced by the music he had heard on his many visits to the wailing wall in Jerusalem. And, perhaps that is why he always invited me to play with him when he was in Toronto, for that was a time when I was studying the oud, learning Flamenco and throwing myself into the music of the Mediterranean. When I look back at it I must have provided Shlomo with a lot of Latin and Flamenco background to his marginally Mediterranean melodies – Santana comes to the Shtetl.
We arrived at the house and walked in the front door. The place was filled with young men and women in their twenties and thirties. All of them had mystical smiles on their faces, as if they had just finished a Yoga class or had just met the Dalai Lama.
They greeted Shlomo with great affection and within minutes we had our guitars out and we were playing and singing. By that time I had learnt enough Hebrew to sing with him when we rendered Am Yisrael Chai or Bimhera Be Karov (a song about the mystical desire to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem).
Soon the Sufis were all around us and we were in the midst of them, jumping, clapping and chanting like the Chassidic Rabbis of two hundred years ago, from the villages where my grandparents had emigrated, gyrating, in circles like that at the Kaaba during the pilgrimage to Mecca or at the great Sufi Tekkes like that of the Rumi in Konya, home of the whirling dervishes. It was then and there that I understood what the scholar Mircea Eliade, whose books I was forced to read at my university, meant by “the universality of the sacred.”
We paused for refreshments and to my surprise I discovered one of my summer camp mates, a young Jewish lad from Montreal, who always had more books on his shelf than I did. He and his wife were now Sufis and wore beaded caps. They had been to Turkey many times and had recently left Montreal to live in Toronto where there was an established Sufi community.
The last time we had met was when he had stayed at my house in Toronto and we went to hear the Procul Harem together at a rock festival. Now he had joined the ranks of the mystically illuminated, while I was left to inhabit the paradoxical world of the skeptics.
As the evening drew to a close, and we all began to feel the fatigue of our ecstatic frenzy, a couple in their thirties came to Shlomo and said “Rabbi, we have a son. He is young and needs your blessing.”
Shlomo picked up his guitar and started chanting.
He spoke of the Children of Israel in the desert of Sinai, he described King David the shepherd and poet, he broke into a Yiddish/Hebrew version of one of King David's psalms, he then meditated and chanted and touched upon the most tragic blessing – for the departed souls of the children who died in the Holocaust. The house had become so quiet that you could hear the traffic from down the street, its sounds muffled by the falling snow.
Shlomo then regained his composure and as he chanted and sang he came close to the young couple and said, “Raise the child so that we can all see him, and bless him and pray that his future will be bright and filled with love and the fulfillment of the mitzvot of the Tora!” (the Biblical commandments).
They raised the child in their hands and we all began to sing Shma Yisrael (Here oh Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One) Shlomo then asked each of the parents for their names. They were called John and Rebecca and he blessed them with his melodious voice filled with love and affection for this happy couple and their son, who had the fortune to be born in a city at peace in a peaceful country. He then asked them the name of their son.
The wife blurted out “Christian!” Shlomo stopped dead in his tracks, looked at the couple and without thinking, asked them, “You couldn’t have named him something else?”
Within a second he started laughing. The laughter was infectious and hard to stop. He grabbed his guitar, and with the loving husband and wife holding their son in their hands, he blessed the child. We began to snake dance through the living room of that Sufi meeting house in downtown Toronto until tired and fulfilled we made our way back to Bathurst and Eglinton.
Shlomo was off to San Francisco the next morning. He told me that I should come one day and see what real Judaism was all about. I shook his hand warmly. He gave me a big hug. I said I would think about it.
I was tired, exhilarated and went home. But, somehow I couldn't fall asleep. So, I turned on the TV and watched the late night movie.
It was Zefferelli's “Jesus of Nazareth.” Had Shlomo stayed up late to watch it with his wife and me, I know what he would have told us. “Never forget, Jesus was a Rabbi too. But you know, when you really think about it, deeply, he was born a long time before there was Yiddishkeit!”
Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.
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