In 1994, when Neshama Carlebach, then a teenager, joined her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on stage they broke the taboo of kol isha, the Orthodox prohibition of women singing before men. It was also the first and last time she’d appear with her father, otherwise known as the Singing Rabbi. A few months later he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Today Carlebach, 41, in her own right a star in Jewish entertainment, continues to break barriers while both carrying on her father’s legacy and charting her own unique path. Whether it’s performing with an African-American Baptist church choir or singing before the People’s Climate Change March in 2013, Carlebach still sees music as a way to give voice to the voiceless.
“I believe we can have a wonderful world. I believe we can heal through music. That’s the voice I want to sing to,” Carlebach said, sitting inside New York’s jewel-like Café Lalo on a raw February day.
Music — and the lack of it — has healed Carlebach, and allowed her to realize that sometimes the best way to hold on to someone is to let them go.
Neshama Carlebach has traversed the universe of Jewish music. Each step she’s taken has brought her to a wider audience. And, each step she has taken along her path has been accompanied by controversy.
Carlebach will appear in concert at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 6, at Congregation Beth Israel, 5600 N. Braeswood Blvd. The concert also will feature Beth Israel Cantor Daniel Mutlu, songwriter Josh Nelson and Rev. Milton Vann and the Glory To God Singers.
Carlebach’s father, the charismatic Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, brought his daughter, Neshama, on stage to sing with him in her first public appearance as a teenager. For some in the Orthodox community, hearing father and daughter on stage together was transcendent, a bridge between Reb Shlomo’s compositions and the next generation. For others in the Orthodox community, Neshama’s onstage singing voice was a religious scandal, a violation of kol isha. A Talmudic prohibition, kol isha prevents a man from listening to the singing voice of a woman, because it is arousing and thus immodest. (There is rabbinic disagreement regarding the scope of the prohibition.)
While Reb Shlomo was alive, he confronted the issue directly. Upon introducing his daughter, during what turned out to be his last tour, Reb Shlomo told those in the audience who might be offended to go outside while she performed.
Our high school, the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto was, as its name indicated, a community school. Kids entered ninth grade from the spectrum of Jewish day schools — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Sephardic. But it was also a community school in a different way; we were a small group (graduating class of 110), and we looked out for one another. So when one of my classmates starred, in that first year of high school, as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in a local production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a bunch of went to see her. None of us knew her very well yet (nor each other), but we loved watching her. “She’s a born performer,” whispered one of my classmates.
That couldn’t have been a more prescient observation I thought earlier this month, watching Neshama Carlebach perform with Joshua Nelson, another star of the shul circuit, at the Jewish Center in Princeton, New Jersey, hundreds of miles and in a country apart from the one where I first saw her on a stage. Still sprinkled with fairy dust, Neshama belted out songs that give life to her “soulful” name, songs that left the crowd beatific. All around me, faces were lit up with rapture; people swayed and sang along; some broke into spontaneous dance. When I went to give my old classmate a hug after her performance, I had to fight off dozens of other admirers who wanted to give her a hug, not because they also knew her, but because they loved her without needing to know her.
Some people might think Neshama built her career on her father’s legacy. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was one of the greatest Jewish singers and spiritual leaders of the 20th century. “Soul Doctor,” the play about his life, might have had a sadly short run on Broadway, but its existence speaks volumes about his incredible influence as a “Rock Star Rabbi.” Every Jew knows his music, even if they don’t know it’s his (“Am Yisroel Chai” is but one example). As The New York Times put it in his obituary, “Rabbi Carlebach put the words of Jewish prayer and ceremony to music that is heard at virtually every Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah, from Hasidic to Reform.” But this is my personal memory of the man: he was Neshama’s father. And one time, I think it was in 11th grade, he came to our school, guitar in hand, an aging hippy with an infectious smile, and played music for our class. “Hey, Neshama’s dad is pretty good, isn’t he?” I asked one of my friends. “Like Neshama,” he agreed.
(JTA) — As the August premiere of the Broadway musical “Soul Doctor” drew to a close, the daughter of the show’s subject, the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, took to the stage.
Neshama Carlebach invited the cast and audience to join her in singing her father’s legendary hit, “Am Yisrael Chai,” which became widely recognized as an anthem for the Soviet Jewry movement. The refrain, “Od avinu chai,” translates as “Our father lives on” and is derived from the question Joseph asks his brothers in the book of Genesis.
Although “Soul Doctor” is slated to close on Sunday after 32 preview performances and 66 regular performances, there was no mistaking the significance of the lyrics.
“This was the culmination of 10 years of work,” Carlebach told JTA. “It was a moment of triumph for my father that he was on Broadway. But it was another step in the journey. I know there is more work to be done.”
The unconventional life and music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach comes to life, with a little help from his kin.
“Hello, ‘A Pure Soul That Descended to This World,'” I say into the phone, greeting Esther Neshama Tehora Shucha Carlebach with the English translation of her given name. Laughing, she shoots back brightly, “I assume no responsibility for that name.”
That was laid on her by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925–94), who, in addition to being her father, was “the father of popular Jewish music” and is now the subject of a Broadway musical biography, Soul Doctor, opening Aug. 15 at Circle in the Square.
It is stacked with the songs Carlebach used to bring his musical culture up to contemporary speed, hastened in that direction via a relationship with jazz singer Nina Simone—an improbable, but powerful, alliance.
Even the diminutive of her moniker, Neshama, was a stumbling block at recess. “When I was young, I felt very burdened by the name,” she admits. “Plus, it was a very different-sounding name. People would say, ‘What? Michelle?’ I get a lot of that.”
But given the direction her career has gone, which is step by step in her father’s footsteps, it’s a good thing that Soul is, literally, part of her name.
My dearest friends, near and far,
We are about to receive the Torah (the essence of G-d’s message to us), on the holiday of Shavuot this week. I wanted to share a little piece of my own recent Journey, heading towards the Mountain to receive the Word of G-d…
Human beings are infinite. Our fears and disappointments may allow us to hide from our own powerful energy, but truly, we are infinite. Sadly, many of the trappings of this world, including the Words we depend on for our deepest communication are finite and limited. To say that your child is “extraordinary” or that a sunset is “beautiful” doesn’t even begin to describe the depths of that which we witness, or to express the breadth of our emotionality.
Still, there are moments that are (as my father would say) “Beyond the Beyond,” moments of infinite, abundant, Joy and Truth, where we can fully access the power of who we are. These moments are rare gifts but can be missed completely if we allow our own limitations to interfere. Personally, I beg for these moments, live for them, pray for them. They sustain me as a Mother, as an Artist, as a human being.
We learn that where prayer (Tfilla) ends, song (Shira) begins. Music is often the only way to express the depth, the immense endlessness of all we long for, of all we can have inside. This is why I sing, I know we are all capable of so much more…