Counterculture Hasidism

by Aryae Coopersmith
One World Lights, 2011

Tucked into the second volume of Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim is a story about one of the most well-known Hasidic Jewish masters, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Likely it was told by one of his students, and then passed down until Buber found it. Buber titles it “Why Write a Book?”

In the story the Kotzker Rebbe, as he was called, is urged by his students to do just that. And after a thoughtful moment he responds:

Well, let’s say I have written a book. Now who is going to buy it? Our own people will buy it. But when do our people get to read a book, since all throughout the week they are absorbed in earning their livelihood? They will get to read it on a Sabbath. And when will they get to read it on a Sabbath? … after the Sabbath meal is over, they have time to read. Well, suppose one of them stretches out on the sofa, takes the book, and opens it. But he is full and he feels drowsy, so he falls asleep and the book slips to the floor. Now tell me, why should I write a book?

Imagine taking the same attitude toward the writing of the Torah. From what would we learn, we people of the book? How would we know our history? We know it by poring over every little nuance of story, of written conversation between the Creator and Moses, Judah and Joseph, or Sarah and Abraham.

One of our sorrows is that we have so little historical material about some of our greatest teachers of the past, from kabbalists like Rabbi Isaac Luria, to Hasidic revivalists like the Ba’al Shem Tov, to the great teachers lost in the Holocaust.

Holy Beggars

Scholars spend whole lifetimes digging in archives to discover the true identities of our revered but long-gone teachers. So think of the joy that future scholars of Jewish tradition will feel when they discover that one of the great teachers of the twentieth century, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, has been recorded in his own words and many of his own songs, and that his students, those who truly knew him, have chronicled his journey in the world.

Brand new among these chronicles is Holy Beggars, a remarkable book by Aryae Coopersmith. Holy Beggars is a page-turner that reads like a memoir and weaves together journalism, history, deep Jewish teaching, rollicking storytelling, and poetic tribute. It paints a cinematic panorama of the 1960s in San Francisco, explores the impact of the era of “tune in, turn on, drop out,” and describes Rabbi Carlebach’s expansive musical career. It tells of the creation of his House of Love and Prayer, the Jewish center he founded in San Francisco to blend together traditional Hasidic Judaism and the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. And it tells of his driving, passionate search for the post-Holocaust Jewish generation in the United States.

Coopersmith chronicles Rabbi Carlebach’s extraordinary effort to redeem and give new life to authentic Jewish spirituality after World War II, in the United States and worldwide. This was, after all, Carlebach’s core mission. And Coopersmith digs down to the profound depths, the “deepest of the deep,” as Carlebach would say, to illuminate the urgency with which this rabbi strove to realize that goal. He shows us how Carlebach renewed Jewish spirituality in words, songs, deeds, and the intimate details of the man’s personal style.

Coopersmith is perhaps uniquely qualified to write such an account because he took Carlebach as his own rebbe — his own revered and beloved root into the mayim chaim, the buried and obscured waters of life of Jewish tradition and spirituality. And Coopersmith was among those who made the House of Love and Prayer happen, with their hands and tools, and with their expansive spirits. So the reader is honored, really, with a scrupulously honest and deeply loving account of the author’s relationship with Carlebach.

The account reminds me of Paramahansa Yogananda’s account of his own relationship with his teacher, Swami Sri Yukteswar, in Autobiography of a Yogi. Holy Beggars also memorializes the teacher-student relationship, but in a uniquely contemporary American vein.

The book is just as much about Coopersmith’s own Jewish journey in the world, his friendships and hardships, his soaring joys and self-discoveries. We see into his many-layered quest and grasp the many issues facing an honest and conscientious twentieth-century seeker. His quest embraces psychedelics, transpersonal psychology, politics, and the grassroots activism that created the Jewish Renewal movement in the United States.

Coopersmith neither idealizes Carlebach, nor attempts to hide the many contradictions of his personal life. He recounts all of it, and what soars above everything are the stories of the astounding influence of this mystical Pied Piper of the Jewish world.

Everybody who knew Carlebach — and I am one of them — can recount a marvelous, magical tale about him. Coopersmith shares many of them, and I just want to mention one, recounted in the chapter titled “27 Miles.”

Caught in a traffic jam on an LA freeway in 1968, Shlomo gets out and begins to walk to the synagogue where he’s supposed to make Shabbat that evening. He and Aryae and about ten other “holy beggars” from the House of Love and Prayer learn that their trek will be twenty-seven miles long.

Shlomo is determined to obey the laws of Orthodox Judaism, and not drive or ride in an automobile. To make things even more interesting, rain begins to pour. And along comes Ron McKoy, the “Night Owl” from radio station KFI who has gotten wind of the heroic march. The news goes out all over LA, and by the time Carlebach and company arrive at the synagogue at 5 a.m. Saturday, there are hundreds of drenched people marching with them.

These tales of a modern Hasid are especially compelling because they are part of our contemporary history. We learn that Carlebach performed side by side with Pete Seeger and many other very famous artists all over the United States and worldwide. He was known to many as “The Singing Rabbi.”

Many issues with which the U.S. Jewish Renewal movement has struggled are thoughtfully revisited in this book. Many of them revolve around the conflicts between modern American life and Orthodox Judaism. For example, Coopersmith highlights many of the difficulties women face in religious movements, including the perspective of his wife, Wendy Berk, as well as thoughts I shared with him. He reveals how orthodoxy, with its strict separation of men and women, veered far off from the freewheeling spirit of the House of Love and Prayer, where the motto was, “When you walk in, someone loves you, when you leave, someone misses you.” Men and women hugging, dancing, singing, and learning together were hallmarks of the House of Love and Prayer. They have remained significant elements of Jewish Renewal.

So who will buy this book? Anyone who loves to laugh; who went through the 1960s or wishes they went through the 1960s; who wants to be embraced by the mystery of the most Jewish of the Jews and his “holy beggars”; or who’s ready to be moved to tears by the beauty of epic, comic, mystical and real-life tales of twentieth-century Hasidim.

And when will you find time to read the book? Once you walk into the world of this very good storyteller, you’ll find the time.


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