TALKING TO SHLOMO (or “The Communion of All Saints”)
Some background here: Author/creativity teacher Julia Cameron, in her book Walking in This World—second book of The Artist’s Way series—has an exercise called “The Communion of All Saints,” in which she has the reader list some creative/artistic personages who are no longer living, choose one of them, and initiate a “conversation” with them on paper.
“Have you considered asking your creative saints, those artists you admire who have passed over, for creative help? This personal practice, far from being heretical, honors the fact that art making is a spiritual lineage. Our artistic ancestors are sources of inspiration, not only in the survival of their work but in the survival of their creative spirit. By involving them directly, we correctly honor their contributions to our lives, and this practice yields great creative fruit. Do you have any resistance to this process? ... Experiment: Select one creative elder who has passed on. Ask for help and input on a problem you are facing. Writing very rapidly, transcribe what you hear.”
Well, I did have some resistance to this process, partially because the title of this exercise sounds so ... well, Catholic ... and asking a deceased persona for influence from the other side sounds a wee bit too much like conjuring up spirits. But hey. I set aside my apprehension over whether this seemed a bit too much like doreish es hameis, and had a ‘conversation’ with Shlomo Carlebach, a/k/a Reb Shlomo, whose music I had been listening to since I was a young child, whom I had met when I was ten years old, and whose approach to Judaism became very influential in my life years later, after he had died and I moved to Los Angeles and joined The Happy Minyan there. This here is the transcript of that conversation.
Shlomo, oh Shlomo … I wish you were here, so I could ask you in real time … but I know you are out there, and maybe even right here … so I want to ask you for help with an issue that I am grappling with now. I so wish that I could ask you in person, and had you been here physically, I would ask you.
[So nu, holy brother, what do you want to ask?]
Well, Shlomo … I’ve been in America now for 30 years. It’s in July since I came back to the US from Israel. Yet I never considered myself a “yored” in the strictest sense. I always kept in the back of my mind the possibility of going back if things got too difficult for Jews in the US. And then later on, while I was still with my second wife, I told her that once I finished recording all of my magnum opus here in the US, I would be seriously interested in considering my return to Israel. So here is the thing. Events in the US have heated up. Not, G-d forbid, to the levels of 1933 Germany, despite all the amped-up rhetoric from my gun-loving friends. But enough to make me want to leave, because any fight here is not mine to fight. At the same time, I have not completed my magnum opus. I have completed the first three installments, but there are two more. I don’t have the money to work on them right now. My plan was to re-release those three installments with a big flourish in 2020, right after my daughter graduates college. But because of these events that make me want to move to Israel, I am also considering that summer as the target date for moving. Yet if I do that I’ll feel like my work isn’t done. I have this music that I wrote, and it’s about a very specific set of circumstances and history, and I don’t want to throw it all away.
[Is that everything, holy brother Heshy?]
No, Shlomo, there is one more thing, and it came to me over this past Yom Tov [i.e., Pesach]. And that is the question of What is my music about? What or who am I doing it for? More specifically: Has the fact that I have been putting all my efforts, desires, and imaginations into this magnum opus been taking away from Who I ought to really be making music for? I was adamant for a long time that I do not want my music to serve anyone’s agenda. Has that sentiment been stymieing any progress in getting any of my music anywhere? I don’t want to make “Jewish Music.” No disrespect, Shlomo, but I just can’t. I want it to be for the world, not just for frum yidden in "oy-oy-oy" speak. That is just not for me. So what do I do?
[Well, brother, you have to tell me the name of your opus.]
It’s called “Soul In Exile.”
[Ah-hah! I see why you were evading telling me that bit of information! But, yingele, I’m not here to judge you. What are you singing about in these songs?]
I sing about love, loss of love, displacement, divorce, and finding yourself a place in this world. And of course, it’s all about my favorite places, beach towns in the off season.
[So you’re singing about being in exile after being thrown out by someone you loved dearly. I get that, bucherel, believe me I do. Do you sing about coming home? Coming back from the exile?]
Well, I have touched on it in a few songs.
[Are you afraid to? As if, if you do sing about coming home, your entire reason for singing will become meaningless?]
Well … yes. Now that you put it in those words, yes.
[And what were you planning to do with the songs?]
I wanted to finish the writing of all the songs, the assembling of all the albums, and get them all ready to go so that all I have to do when the time comes is book the studio time and get rolling.
[And you can only do this where you are?]
Well, yes. Shlomo … this is such a Jersey Shore thing, I have to have musicians from Jersey, who know about the vibe I’m after. That’s how my previous albums worked, for the most part.
[“For the most part”?]
Yes. The second album had a lot of California in it. And even a little bit of Israel. The third album is mostly Jersey, with a bit of Israel. I feel that I can’t make the fourth and fifth albums outside of Jersey because then the music will not have that Jersey vibe to it.
[Ah, but is that really so? I can see what you did in the past, particularly in 1984-85, when you recorded in Yerushalayim, by Ariel in Geula. You got your vibe there, even if you were the only Jersey musician on the recording. And you also got the holy vibe from the holy city.]
I suppose you’re right. But I’d feel inauthentic, like a hypocrite even, if I recorded my Jersey songs in Israel. Or in Long Island, for that matter. And if I tried to rewrite those songs so that they’d be about the exile coming home, I would not feel true to myself and the art I made.
[Well, how about this. Do what you’ve been planning. Write the songs as you intended them. Do your preparation for recording. And even record your voice and your piano in New Jersey. What you do afterwards, you’ll decide at that point. No need to shvitz over it now. You may even want to make two recordings, two versions. Maybe you’ll even want to revisit the first three once you’re in Israel. And you will be, Hershele. I promise you. I won’t say exactly when. But Hashem wants you to come home. And so do I.]
Yes. I think I knew that all along.
[Now I sense you want to go to sleep. Anything else I can help you with tonight, before your eyes close?]
Yes, Shlomo. I really want an answer, and some guidance, about what to do with my music, and who I should be making it for.
[Well, first of all, know that all music is from Hashem and for Hashem. So that means that even if you are singing about being hurt by your ex-wife and missing your little girls, your neshamalech, you are still singing to Hashem. So don’t shvitz that part. But as for who you think you should be serving. You don’t want to be political, right?]
That’s right. Politics makes music and spirituality dirty and corrupt.
[Opinionated, I see. That’s good. But you know, I used to sing about love, about brothers and sisters, and that spoke louder about things that mattered, like Eretz Yisrael and Hashem and His holy yidden and all that’s in the world, than all the political protest singers in my time. And you know, there were a lot of them in my time. A lot were yidden, too. Phil Ochs, nebech. Who listened to him except his hard core of followers? Such a waste, that yingele was. He made the mistake of being too specifically, overtly political, and that’s why he never had more than a cult following. You can do better, Hershele. Just say what you know and what you feel. Don’t think you “have to” or “should” sing about a subject that you don’t feel about.]
That’s beautiful, Shlomo, and it confirms what I always felt. But what about the chatzotzros, the holy trumpets that make our enemies fall before us? Am I really blowing on those trumpets if I’m singing about souls in exile and lost loves?
[Right now, you need to write and sing about what’s been in your heart and mind all this time. The chatzotzros will come in due time. Don’t force them to come to you before you and they are ready. It has to incubate, to build up, in the dark, in the back of your mind, while you consciously focus on your songs of exile and love and redemption and faith. Those are all beautiful things … well, exile, not really; coming home from the exile, OK. But those are yours for now. Dedicate yourself to those. The other things will come when they’re ready. Have I answered you well this time?]
Yes, Shlomo, you have. Thank you so much, I don’t know how much to thank you.