Carlebach and the Unheard Stories
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Carlebach and the Unheard Stories

Shlomo Carlebach thought that stories contained profound truth. When he taught, and often when he sang, he told stories of Hasidim, stories of rebbes, and stories of other Jews. In his capacities as a rabbi, a teacher, and a musician, he used stories to connect with his audience and to share his worldview with them. Since his death in 1994, his followers and admirers have also told stories about him: They have told stories of “Reb Shlomo” bringing them back to a Judaism they had written off, of an inspiring, charismatic leader who made them feel the presence of God in the world for the first time, and of a generous soul who gave away his money and time to any Jew who needed them.

But they have also told stories of Carlebach’s sexual abuse of adolescent and adult women. Three years after Carlebach’s death, the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith published an article chronicling many women’s accounts of Carlebach’s sexual misconduct and abuse.1 Three of these women went on record, allowing their names to be published. One had been 12 years old when the abuse occurred, another 14, and the third an adult who had witnessed Carlebach’s inappropriate sexual conduct toward women in her community. Others requested pseudonyms but allowed Lilith to print their stories. But the stories of Carlebach groping women’s breasts, intimately fondling women during extended hugs, and carrying on inappropriate and sexually charged phone calls with women late at night recurred across the accounts. Women continue to come forward to tell similar stories today in online forums.2 How are [End Page 555] scholars to write about a man whose teachings and actions relied so centrally on the power of the story when the stories about him draw such a contradictory picture of the man?

Some scholars have opted to give credence only to the good stories. The problem with this is exemplified by a recent biography of Carlebach written by Natan Ophir. The book was based on hundreds of personal interviews with those who knew Carlebach. In an interview with Ophir, the author encapsulated his approach to writing about Carlebach and sexual abuse.

There are several stories circulating, which, if true, would indicate that Shlomo acted ‘inappropriately’. However, the challenge is to find concrete evidence for ‘sexual abuse’. One obstacle is that the negative stories are reported anonymously[,] making them difficult to verify. Secondly, events of a few decades ago are problematic to reconstruct based on oral memories.3

Yet Ophir based much of the rest of his book on “oral memories.” Belief in the utility of testimony and oral history was the very foundation upon which much of the biography was built. And yet, in the case of women’s “negative stories,” their stories were not enough. The scare quotes surrounding “inappropriately” and “sexual abuse” signal the suspicion with which Ophir regarded the women’s testimonies. It is untrue that all the women remained anonymous, and the named women are under no obligation to recount their trauma, especially to a skeptical audience. Sexual abuse often leaves no “concrete evidence,”4 (perhaps by this metaphor for solidity, Ophir means physical and indisputable evidence) and so using its absence as evidence for innocence is specious. If Carlebach repeatedly groped a 12-year-old girl’s breast, whispered in her ear, and engaged in unwanted touching, and if her mother later told her that she must be mistaken about what he had done, what “concrete evidence” would there be? “Oral memories” are important, not only [End Page 556] when they build up the legacy of a man like Carlebach, but also when they are told by girls and women whose accounts do not conform to the hagiographic narrative.

As historians and other scholars, we may look for documentary or material corroboration of historical events. As Jewish community members, people often rely on stories.5 And here we have an overlap: Many of the scholars writing about Carlebach knew him. They continue to be members of Jewish communities affected by him, and they have their own stories. Of course, no scholar is utterly detached...


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