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The Pain of Singing Carlebach

We’re in the thick of High Holidays, with their highs and lows, opportunities for repentance, remembrance, and breathtaking moment after breathtaking moment.  As a prayer leader, I often find the long services bring me into a kind of trance, a slow journey through ancient ritual. I see the people wearing white for newness and mourning—and as I look into the kahal (congregation), I can often make out flecks of sparkling tears under the lights.

Soaring melodies carry us through this journey. Some of these powerful melodies—melodies that have been the soundtrack of my pain, my joy, my on-the-bima flirting, my painstaking, year-by-year growing up—were written by Shlomo Carlebach. Carlebach was a prolific and influential song leader, and also a known abuser.

Read more in Lilith’s 1998 investigation, “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side,” by Sarah Blustain, and Lilith’s 20 year follow up “You’ve Come a Long Way, Sister: 20 Years After Carlebach Allegations, His Daughter Hears #MeToo

As a survivor of sexual assault, I have often found myself unable to express my feelings singing and leading these songs, especially on Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance. 

A few weeks ago, after a particularly moving service, I found some words to begin to crack the silence in my throat. The following words are an offering, and are particularly dedicated to fellow survivors of sexual abuse. 

Storm: A Prayer for Singing Carlebach in Synagogue 

Should I find myself at shul in summer,
sweat dripping onto tissue paper pages,
a storm lapping the stained glass —
should I come to my sanctuary and find myself
immersed in your music, Lord,
let me pray.

When your melodies enter my mouth 
like tendrils of silver hair, Lord,
let me imagine them as kelp 
slippery on the skin 
easily brushed away with a kick
and glide into the open sea.
There will the waves wash over my mind,
my limbs long and fluid.

Lord, let the congregation weep with me —
for the youth I had when my hair was dry and long,
for the dark-eyed face that watched itself 
in the bathroom mirror 
the day I met a man like you. 

Lord, get me high on a slippery rock,
balancing on barnacles, ocean spray
whipping my eyelids with song:
the death of smaller fish,
oysters opening and closing below.

I pray to my Lord that your voice may turn pale.
That the skeletons of your songs may wash 
onto the shores for children to clean
and perhaps love anew. That the people 
whose lives you saved be brilliantly 
alive, and the people whose lives 
you spat on know laughter
loud as the crashing waves,
in the mikveh of the storm.

***

Arielle Rivera Korman is a co-founder and the executive director of Ammud: the Jews of Color Torah Academy. She is also a songwriter and prayer leader, davening most often at Romemu on Lenape land (New York City).

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