Thursday, February 6, 2014 | return to: lit, off the shelf


off the shelf |  Two larger-than-life leaders who broke the mold

by howard freedman

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freedman_howardIt is rather incredible that “Arik,” David Landau’s new biography of Ariel Sharon, was released on Jan. 10, just one day before Sharon’s death following eight years in a coma. The voluminous book offers the opportunity to look anew at the complicated legacy of one of Israel’s most important and divisive leaders.

As a left-leaning Orthodox Jew, Landau, the former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, would seem an unlikely biographer of the proudly secular warrior and farmer whose political career was attached to the rise of Israel’s right wing. But Landau’s account is remarkably balanced and takes full advantage of his access to insiders in Israel’s government and military.

The book follows Sharon’s participation in all of Israel’s conflicts, starting in 1948. As a military leader, his penchant for independence and overzealousness could yield successes — as when he boldly led his armored division across the Suez Canal to cut off the Egyptian army, bringing about an end to the Yom Kippur War in 1973 — or disaster, as when he insisted on capturing the Mitla Pass during the 1956 Sinai campaign, against his superiors’ judgment, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of dozens of Israeli soldiers.

Landau’s account of Sharon’s five years as Israel’s prime minister depicts his shifts from some of the hard-line positions he had championed. As one of the chief proponents of building Jewish settlements in territories gained in 1967, Sharon surprised many by acknowledging the inevitability of a Palestinian state and, in a 2003 speech to the Likud caucus in the Knesset, rejecting “the idea that we can continue to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation.”

LIT_off_the_shelf_arik_bookcover_normal_sizeThe very use of the word “occupation” ripped at the heart of the Likud Party that Sharon had helped build. And his ensuing decision to disengage unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 was met with further shock and opposition from his political base. Landau struggles to understand the motivations behind Sharon’s changing beliefs and tactics, but he considers them a source of hope for Israel’s future.

Natan Ophir’s “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy” is another well-timed biography, with interest in the rabbi renewed as a result of “Soul Doctor,” last year’s surprisingly successful Broadway musical based on Carlebach’s life. This extraordinarily researched book stands alone as a comprehensive record of his career, but its appeal to general readers will be hampered by its laborious degree of detail.

There was perhaps no rabbi in the past century with as wide a reach as Carlebach. The odds are that if you’re reading this article, you’ve sung his melodies whether or not you know it (the most ubiquitous is perhaps “Am Yisrael Chai,” but many of his tunes are liturgical staples in both liberal and Orthodox settings). But, as Ophir shows, the impact of his work went much further than the spreading of melodies.

Carlebach began his career in the 1950s as an emissary for the Lubavitcher rebbe as part of Chabad’s program to bring nonobservant Jews back to Judaism. Discovering the power of song and armed with a guitar, he made music and storytelling the centerpiece of his outreach. Feeling hobbled by the boundaries that prevented men and women from singing together, he soon parted ways with Chabad.

In the mid-1960s, Carlebach found a new audience in hippies who were thirsting for a more profound spiritual connection. In 1968, the House of Love and Prayer was established in San Francisco’s Richmond District to serve as one of Carlebach’s bases — a heretofore unimaginable merging of the counterculture with an embrace of religious devotion, Torah study and making aliyah (those with interest in this era may want to read Aryae Coopersmith’s memoir, “Holy Beggars: A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem”).

Ophir recounts Carlebach’s subsequent outreach efforts around the globe, highlighting his unprecedented 1989 tour of the Soviet Union, where he reached tens of thousands of Jews in synagogues and concert halls two years before the fall of the Communist state.

LIT_off_the_shelf_shlomo_carlebach_bookcover_normal_sizeIt is to the author’s credit that he acknowledges the claims of sexual improprieties that surfaced after Carlebach’s death in 1994. But I am disappointed Ophir elects not to discuss these accusations further. He notes that it is difficult to determine their veracity because “events of a few decades ago are problematic to reconstruct accurately based merely on oral memories.” But I would counter that such memories, drawn from interviews with dozens of Carlebach’s disciples and colleagues, already form the basis of a huge portion of this book.

I am sympathetic to the difficulty Ophir must have had with this issue. As an Orthodox rabbi himself, he is mindful of the Jewish value of refraining from speaking ill of the dead, who cannot defend themselves. And, as he notes, “the most prominent ethical message in Shlomo’s legacy is to refrain from caustic judgments.”

Ultimately, though, I’m bothered that the voices of those women who had the courage to call attention to Carlebach’s alleged indiscretions do not get heard. This echoes a pattern of marginalizing the accuser that we’ve seen far too often in the religious world, including the Jewish one.

And for people like me, who are inclined to believe the complaints about Carlebach’s behavior, but who also have great positive feelings for his legacy, the need for resolution is best served by confronting this issue directly.

“Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon” by David Landau (656 pages, Knopf, $35)

“Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy” by Natan Ophir (503 pages, Urim, $39.95)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.


Posted by sarashendelman
02/06/2014  at  07:58 PM
What was left out.....

I was interviewed at length for this book on several subjects, including the issue of Shlomo’s improprieties. Since what I told Ophir had been documented in a previous Lilth Magazine article, as well as witnessed by 20 women, I was very surprised it wasn’t included. I am in the book in three places, saying I played the guitar with his Bay Area concerts. I played with him once in Israel, but at the many concerts, I sang with him, a totally different proposition in Jewish life. Shlomo was also on the Beit Din for my ordination, so I knew him from many sides. He was an extraordinary soul, talent and teacher. But as this book is made of stories, all the stories should be considered or it is a less than perfect picture of the man.

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Posted by Dr. Natan Ophir
02/06/2014  at  10:46 PM
Dear Howard, I thank you

Dear Howard, I thank you for your book review. My name is Dr. Natan Ophir (Offenbacher) – please do not truncate my name. Reb Shlomo was an Orthodox Rabbi who studied in Lakewood Yeshiva for six years and then represented Chabad for five years, yet he broke radically from his upbringing, when he began to proclaim his goal of hugging and loving every human being. For an Orthodox rabbi to energetically assert that love, empathy, and hugs would solve the world’s problems was considered going beyond the pale. For a rabbi to hug intentionally and in such numbers was unprecedented. It is also true, that with these tens of thousands of hugs, there were hugs that were not appreciated. This formed the basis for the accusations that were first published in 1998. 
                However, since completing the biography, I have found further confirmation for what I have suspected, namely that the accusations are at best flimsy and at worst defamatory. I interviewed in depth about twenty women whom I specifically asked to share their experiences about Reb Shlomo’s personal life. This includes women who dated him and were romantically involved when he was an eligible bachelor. Most of the women stated that there was nothing wrong with his behavior. Several women were critical of his social hugging and his way of phoning people around the world at hours that disregarded international time differences. Others, like Sara Shendelman, even confronted him and challenged him to be more careful of how he relates. However, I have not been able to find women who will testify – a first hand story, not a rumor – that there was sexual impropriety that would have been tried in court and not in a tabloid.             
My strategic decision not to continue this discussion is not only because of my fear of slander, it is also because of my academic training. I have a PhD from an important and well known University, and I was taught not to rely upon rumor even if it has been repeated so often that it has become common parlance. Although, the 1998 article has been often quoted and thus attained a kind of canonical veracity, when I began to delve into the sources and ask for further clarifications, I found that the actual stories were either exaggerated or impossible to verify. If you would like further details, I would be happy to share them in a personal email.

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Posted by Dr. Natan Ophir
02/06/2014  at  11:40 PM
Yes, I had the privilege

Yes, I had the privilege of interviewing Sara Shendelman (August 31, 2011) for an hour and a half and her stories are indeed worth hearing. Sara first met Reb Shlomo in the summer of 1967 when she was age 16 at the B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp at Starlight, Pennsylvania. Shlomo was invited there by Dr. Daniel Thursz, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith and professor of Social Justice at the University of Maryland School. Sara told me: “I sang with Shlomo whenever he came to the Bay area to perform, and in fact, he is one of the signatories on my cantorial documents”. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi presented Sara with cantorial documents and asked his friend and colleague, Shlomo to cosign.  Again, this was a radical break from Orthodox tradition, but illustrates Shlomo’s maverick way of helping people fulfill their positive goals in life. 

William Shakespeare has Anthony eulogizing Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”. I suggest that the Jewish way is different – it is to try and bury the mistakes or at least to correct them, and emphasize the good that can perpetuate the valuable parts of their legacy.

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Posted by Miriam Rubinoff
02/08/2014  at  09:08 PM
Those who persist in trying

Those who persist in trying to defame Reb Shlomo so many years after his passing need names and faces if they want to be considered seriously. Aside from one deeply troubled, publicity-hungry “advocate” (who has gone on to make up charges against other Jewish activists), I have not seen any willing to step forward.

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