Israel Festival Musical About ‘Singing Rabbi’ Strikes Wrong Note in #MeToo Era, Say Critics

Local premiere of ‘Soul Doctor,’ about life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, runs into problems over long-standing allegations of sexual impropriety – and cast members having the wrong type of visa

The production of "Soul Doctor," about the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Carol Rosegg

The musical “Soul Doctor,” based on the real-life story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was widely tipped to be one of the highlights of this year’s Israel Festival. But it has run into two big problems.

The first concerns critics who say the #MeToo era is no time to celebrate a figure like Carlebach, whose legacy is overshadowed by multiple allegations of sexual impropriety against young women. And the second materialized this week when cast and crew members arrived in Israel, only to discover they were lacking the proper work visas to perform here.

“Soul Doctor” is meant to be staged in Jerusalem on June 7-9, recounting the story of Carlebach’s life and his friendship with legendary singer Nina Simone (played in the touring production by popular Israeli artist Ester Rada).

Carlebach died in 1994, but three years later detailed allegations emerged of inappropriate sexual behavior – including stories from teenagers describing how the rabbi’s well-documented penchant for hugging crossed the line into groping and beyond.

Since his death, there has been a growing divide: Between those who believe Carlebach’s popular music has been tainted by the growing list of allegations; and those who venerate him and his contribution to Jewish religion and culture.

Carlebach also continues to be viewed as a pivotal and transformative figure in Modern Orthodox Judaism, with many inspired by his musical legacy and the communities he built in San Francisco and New York City.

“Carlebach-style” congregations and prayer services remain popular around the world, often being seen as injecting energy into Jewish liturgy, attracting disaffected secular youth through what has become known as Jewish renewal.

The musical about the man known as the “Singing Rabbi” or “Rockstar Rabbi” – who charmed many and alienated others with his fusion of Jewish and ’60s hippie culture – premiered in the United States in 2010. It opened on Off-Broadway two years later and even had a brief stint on Broadway in 2013.

On paper, it is an inspiration tale. The German-born Carlebach escaped the Holocaust as a child and later broke away from the confines of strict Orthodox life to found the House of Love and Prayer. It was here he “healed souls through his message of love and compassion,” as the show’s publicity material describes it, promoting interracial understanding during the stormy Civil Rights era.

Time for a reckoning

But Sheila Warshawsky, from Omer, southern Israel, says she was “upset and angry” when she saw that “Soul Doctor” was being promoted in Israel with no mention of the allegations against Carlebach.

“I was angry because he is portrayed in the musical as a person of character and spirituality, who influenced a lot of people with his spiritual music. His behavior has been exposed. After #MeToo, many people are being taken off of their pedestals. But here, Carlebach remains on his pedestal.” she says.

Shlomo Carlebach performing at Cafe Yaffo in New York, June 24, 1973.
JOHN SOTOMAYOR / NYT

In the synagogue she attends, Warshawsky and others have made it a point to stop holding evenings dedicated to Carlebach’s music, and asked that – out of respect for his accusers – his melodies not be incorporated into prayers. However, she says this has proved difficult, since “many of his tunes have infiltrated modern services and modern Hebrew songs.”

Rabbi Elli Fischer, from Modi’in, agrees that the decision to bring the show to Israel is “highly problematic.” Fischer is one of a number of religious leaders in both the United States and Israel who, since #MeToo, have refrained from using Carlebach’s tunes in their prayer services, resisting his elevation as an icon.

“There’s enough material on the record, and much more unofficially, about Carlebach’s misdeeds that we are overdue for a reckoning – a serious process of documentation that hasn’t happened yet,” says Fischer. “Before any kind of veneration continues, there needs to be a serious process of looking into this man’s history, turning over rocks that haven’t yet been turned over.”

As the #MeToo movement has come to the fore, Fischer says he made a decision at the Rosh Hashanah services he leads not to use Carlebach’s music anymore. The issue is important, he says, because “when we lionize or venerate somebody like that, it communicates to the next generation of potential predators that people will forget about the bad stuff if you do enough good.”

The effort has spawned a Facebook group, with over 1,400 members, called “ANYTHING but Carlebach: A place to Share & Discover Jewish Liturgical Music.”

As controversy over Carlebach mounted in the past year, Carlebach’s daughter, Neshama, spoke out in an impassioned blog post in January, acknowledging the “pain” of her father’s accusers. “I accept the fullness of who my father was, flaws and all,” she wrote. “I am angry with him. And I refuse to see his faults as the totality of who he was.”

‘Concentrate on the good’

Carlebach has many fans and passionate defenders in Israel, though – including those who live in Mevo Modi’im, the central Israel moshav he helped build. Libi, a Tel Aviv-based musician who performed in Carlebach’s band, says he “did so much for Judaism” that she simply chooses not to listen to the accusers.

“I loved Shlomo. When people open their mouths about faults of tzaddikim, it should be taken with a grain of salt. He was Shlomo, and nobody’s perfect. Only HaShem [God] is perfect. Let’s concentrate on the good. He should be celebrated. He has done more for Judaism than any other rabbi,” she says.

Her older sister dated Carlebach in his youth, and Libi remembers when her sister brought him home “with his guitar and love beads,” and he taught her the harmonies to his music.

While Libi says she “empathized” with the women who spoke out, she wishes they had related their stories privately, “on a one-to-one basis,” rather going public and staining his legacy.

From her own experience with Carlebach, she says, “If you were having a bad experience with Shlomo, you could get up and leave. And if you couldn’t get up and leave – honey, take a little responsibility for your actions and don’t go spreading s*** about him.”

Nili Philipp is known for her feminist activism in Beit Shemesh. She says the most disturbing aspect of the controversy is the way in which Carlebach’s disciples have attacked those who speak out against him or criticize him on social media. “There is a concerted effort to turn this man into a tsaddik, canonize him as a saint, accompanied by a campaign to attack his victims,” she notes.

Philipp first met Carlebach when she was 10 and he played in her hometown of Ottawa, Canada. Her parents were fans of his music, but she wasn’t impressed. Even then, Philipp says, she got the sense he was “a manipulative showman.”

Later, as a young college student, she met him and got a “bad vibe,” she recalls. “He was leering at me, standing too close, staring at the wrong places, smiling. He invited me to come and spend Shabbat with him. I was creeped out.”

‘Symbolic importance’

The more immediate problem hanging over the production is the work visa issue. The overseas cast and crew members risk being arrested if they perform in Israel as they only hold tourist visas. The Interior Ministry advised the production team that in order to arrange visas, they would need to leave Israel and go to a neighboring country, like Jordan, arrange their proper paperwork and then return – a procedure that would be logistically impossible considering the schedule, the production team says.

Israel Festival CEO Eyal Sher says the problems are unrelated to his organization, noting: “The ‘Soul Doctor’ production team handled their work permits directly with the Interior Ministry and outside of the festival production infrastructure.”

Marc Zell at a Republicans Overseas Israel event in August 2016.
Ariel Schalit / AP

Marc Zell, one of the producers of the musical, says he is “optimistic” that the visa issue will be resolved, adding he is “counting on the goodwill of the Interior Ministry and Population Authority.” The actions the ministry is insisting on “may be the procedures that they follow, but they aren’t anchored in law and regulation,” he says, adding, “They are trying to protect the best interests of the country, but I think they need to understand that this is important.”

Zell, who is also chair of Republicans Overseas Israel and a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, says that bringing a Broadway musical to Jerusalem, “coming on the heels of the embassy move, has symbolic importance. Sometimes you have to make a point emphatically for the government to understand that.”

Regarding the #MeToo controversy, Zell points out that the “Soul Doctor” production has just finished a run in San Diego. “Southern California,” he says, is “the bastion of progressive thinking in the United States. They don’t have any issues of this nature with the show in California, and neither do we.”

Sher concurs, noting that the Israel Festival “is proud to present the [Israeli] premiere of this show.” He adds he is “not aware of any judicial process in regard to allegations that have surfaced of late, which would require our reconsidering the presentation of this show.”