August 9, 2007
The Blissful Minyan
Shlomo Carlebach and Rabbi Eliezer Garner at Montreal Ashram
For a minute, as I stood near the entrance of my home, I could have sworn I was in Jerusalem. We were in that moment of transition, when Shabbat had just come in, but there was still some light.
As a large procession of people approached my house -- some in black suits wearing Borsalino hats, others robed in all white, several pushing strollers -- it was like we were all bathing in the magical Jerusalem light, that light of fading dusk that announces a night of Shabbat bliss.
And a night of bliss it promised to be, with the Happy Minyan crowd bringing their unique brand of soulfulness to my house in the hood.
In the world of organized Judaism, there is hardware and there is software. Hardware is the physical body of a community, best embodied in the synagogue building that has its permanent roots in the ground. Software is that intangible part of a community that you can't touch but can feel. Its roots are in the mind, heart and soul.
The Happy Minyan has no physical body. It has never owned property or had a permanent location. It relies on the kindness of big congregations. For many years, it used a small chapel at Beth Jacob Congregation. Then their landlord decided they needed the space for something else, so the Happy Minyanites migrated west to a space in the Congregation Mogen David, which, rumor has it, they might already have outgrown.
This is business as usual for these nomadic Jews -- but they rarely get too stressed out over stuff like physical location. They'd rather raise their level of joy than raise money for a building. Their strength comes from knowing that no matter where they are, their hearts are always firmly planted in one place: With their spiritual leader Reb Shlomo, as in the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Hardcore followers never say Rabbi Carlebach. Their relationship is too intimate for that. For the tribe at the Happy Minyan, it's always Reb Shlomo. The other night, with about 65 Reb Shlomo lovers sitting around long tables in my backyard, singing his niggunim and telling his stories, you got a taste of the depth of his influence.
But there's also the breadth of his influence. However you refer to him, Carlebach has become a worldwide phenomenon -- a spiritual and musical force of nature. His melodies, in particular, have infiltrated all denominations of Jewish religious life.
When I see how his legend and global influence have grown, I have to pinch myself to think that he slept in my little bungalow in Venice Beach in the late 1980s. I remember how he'd always call me "Rav Dovid, holiest Jew alive," which made me feel pretty special -- until I heard him say it to three other guys. When I asked him once how so many Jews could be "the holiest," he said something like "mamash" or "gevalt," which I translated to mean that in Shlomo's world, every Jew was the holiest.
In Shlomo's world, you would also hear deep Torah and moving Chasidic stories, but his greatest legacy today is his prolific output of soulful melodies. And while thousands of musicians and chazzans around the world are well acquainted with his music, there is one among them that stands out.
His name is Shlomo Katz, and I'm happy to say he's from our hood.
Katz, who led the singing in my backyard, moved from the Pico-Robertson neighborhood to Jerusalem a few years ago. He blushed when I asked him how many Shlomo melodies he knew. The 27-year-old singer, musician and now rabbi, who was a guest of the Happy Minyan, along with another of Shlomo's disciples from Jerusalem, Rabbi Shalom Brodt, estimated that he's heard more than 750 Shlomo melodies and that he keeps discovering many more from old bootleg tapes made decades ago.
You can hear a fair amount of Shlomo melodies at shuls all over town, but the Happy Minyan is where you get the full-blown, concentrated version -- it's Shlomo Central for the Los Angeles Jewish community. When he's not on the road performing, Yehuda Solomon of the band Moshav leads the happening. The other night in my backyard, the singing got so intense at times that people forgot about the food -- although thanks to Happy Minyan troubadours Jonathan Boyer and Stuie Wax, no one seemed to forget the Chivas and the Grey Goose.
This is definitely an offbeat bunch. You look at a lot of the Happy Minyan faces, and you can be sure that most of them have been to a Grateful Dead concert.
One of the faces, though, makes you think more of James Taylor than Jerry Garcia. David Sacks is an Orthodox Jew who gives Torah classes every week. He's also an Emmy Award-winning television writer and producer who's written for "The Simpsons" and "Third Rock From the Sun." When David got up to speak near the end of our evening, I couldn't help thinking of the contrast between the hip irony of his television writing and the old school reverence of his words of Torah, although it was clear that he defines himself more by the latter.
One thing David spoke about was the difference between joy and bliss. Whereas joy comes from the outside, bliss is already in you, waiting to be revealed, like the bliss of a Shabbat night. He seemed to be describing our evening.
Maybe in the end, what defines the Happy Minyan is what defined the Jewish people during our 19 centuries of exile: an attachment to the software of the soul, rather than the hardware of physical permanence. The Jewish gypsies of the Happy Minyan might be destined to migrate from one location to another, but you can be sure that they will bring their stories, songs and inner bliss wherever they go.
Like their fearless leader, the only permanent building they are attached to is the one that will gather all the Jews, and this temple won't be in the hood, it'll be in Jerusalem.