The Electric Kool-Aid Chassid Test: Local author chronicles his Haight-Ashbury years

For Aryae Coopersmith, the Summer of Love was also the Summer of Tefillah.

Back in the late ’60s, Coopersmith was a bearded, barefoot acolyte of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Part hippie, part tzaddik, part rock star, Carlebach was Judaism’s wandering musical mystic whose melodies are still sung the world over.

Aryae Coopersmith photo/jyl cohen

Coopersmith was one of his chief lieutenants; together they founded the House of Love and Prayer in 1968, which for a few years doubled as a San Francisco hippie yeshiva and crash pad.

Over time, Coopersmith fell away from Reb Shlomo’s form of ecstatic Jewish worship. But he never shed the impact of those heady days, which he recounts in his new book, “Holy Beggars: A Journey From Haight Street to Jerusalem.”

Coopersmith does not quite play Boswell to Carlebach’s Samuel Johnson. The book is no Carlebach biography, but rather a memoir of a special time.

“My intent was to tell the story about my relationship with him, my experience and what I had learned,” Coopersmith says in an interview. “I did have a sense that there was something historic going on.”

Today Coopersmith, 67, lives in Half Moon Bay with his wife, Wendy. He runs a successful high-tech–related business, and though he is no longer an Orthodox Jew of the Carlebach variety, he remains connected to Judaism.

He structured his book in a nonlinear fashion, jumping from those early days with the charismatic Carlebach to a recent long trip to Israel (that’s the “to Jerusalem” part of the subtitle) to catch up with fellow travelers from the glory days.

Growing up in a Conservative home back East, Coopersmith says he had never felt much excitement about Judaism until he encountered Carlebach, who embodied the counterculture ethos of the time. Coopersmith felt he was at the dawning of a new age.

“Before Shlomo came along, the Judaism I grew up with was a Judaism of Holocaust survivors, not a lot of juice, spiritually very dry,” he says. “Shlomo reached people of my generation and turned it upside down. He said we ignited something, that we’re here for a purpose, to bring the great Shabbos, the day of love and peace.”

A crowd surrounds Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach at a Meeting of the Ways concert in 1972 at Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco. photo/courtesy of aryae coopersmith

Carlebach taught his followers basics about Jewish worship and Torah study, but he expanded on that, instituting gender equality and taking his show on the road. Hence the term Holy Beggars, which Carlebach coined to describe his spirit-filled army of street singers.

“Shlomo had a genius for connecting with people,” Coopersmith says. “As a young Jew who started out not particularly identifying myself in Jewish fold, I looked around and saw my non-Jewish friends could relate to this music. [Carlebach] reached everybody. I felt a real pride.”

Carlebach’s music became the focal point of his style of prayer, opening the door to much that followed, from the Jewish Renewal movement to Debbie Friedman’s song-based worship.

In his book, Coopersmith illustrates Carlebach’s magnetism through stories. There was the time when Carlebach, who didn’t drive on Shabbat, led 200 singing supporters through the though the streets of Los Angeles in the pouring rain on their way to a synagogue. Live coverage on local radio brought more and more people out to join the throng.

Carlebach’s reputation is not all positive, however, and Coopersmith does not shy away from that — such as talk of him being a womanizer.

“I struggled with that a lot,” Coopersmith says of his decision to include unsavory information about Carlebach, who died in 1994. “I prayed about it. In the end I came to the sense that it was really my job to tell the story the way it was.”

As for the House of Love and Prayer — which was located on Arguello Boulevard, two blocks from Congregation Emanu-El — it was an overly ambitious project that ultimately failed. Coopersmith tried hard to make it work, but Carlebach failed to deliver on his promise to be at the house for four months out of the year.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (left) and Aryae Coopersmith in 1968 at the House of Love and Prayer. photo/moshe yitzchak kussoy

“There was a period I was mad at him,” Coopersmith says. “I felt betrayed. What I later came to understand was that I wanted him to be what he wasn’t.”

Nowadays, he looks back with fondness on the times and the man. Coopersmith remains a devoted Jew, though more of a more secular kind, informed as always by the memory of his teacher.

“I do feel like he’s still with me,” Coopersmith says. “I discovered that many people have that experience. They still talk to him. They say, “Shlomo, what do I do?’ and they receive an answer.”

“Holy Beggars: A Journey From Haight Street to Jerusalem” by Aryae Coopersmith (396 pages, One World Lights, $18).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.