Now on Broadway: The Renegade Rabbi Who Brought Hasidic Tunes to Mainstream Jews

New musical 'Soul Doctor' tells the story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the singing clergyman who rocked with Nina Simone.

Amy Klein
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Amy Klein

I had no idea that half the tunes I have heard in synagogue were written by Reb Shlomo Carlebach.

As I sat clapping and humming along at the Broadway show, “Soul Doctor,” which opened Thursday in New York City, I marveled at how far the renegade rabbi posthumously influenced Judaism.

“Soul Doctor,” a two-plus hour musical which intersperses some of the rabbi’s thousands of melodies with an original score, tells the story of how Carlebach - a descendent of an old rabbinical dynasty intent on Torah study - came to reject his strict Litvak heritage and bring the Hasidic love of song to mainstream religious Judaism.

The “based on a true” story travels back to his youth in Vienna, where the Nazis quickly took power (Carlebach was really from Berlin, only spent a few years in Vienna). There the young, yellow star-wearing boy encounters the eccentric and exuberant Moishele, who tells the young Shlomo that his mission is to heal the world through song: “He sang his song / to the lost and the lonely / lifting up his broken-hearted brothers one by one.”

Then Moishele is shot in the street by a Nazi who didn’t want a Jew singing.

The family moves to America, where although young Shlomo wants to feed hungry souls, his father sets him up in his new Yeshiva because, “the future of our people is now left in our hands.”

The brilliant student grows up to be a learned man. It is only when he meets the not-yet-discovered African-American Jazz singer Nina Simone that he remembers his mission to save the world through song, a mission he fulfills in the Hasidic world under another great rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. (At the time, the black hats were divided between the austere, learned Litvaks, against the soulful, singing Hassidim.)

The musical follows Carlebach’s relationship with Simone, as they each come into their own - she becoming the “High Priestess of Soul,” he getting a record contract to produce his unique melodies.

But “the singing rabbi” is scandalous. Rejected by his family, he heads to Frisco to heal all the broken souls, building a following, which he takes to Jerusalem. Finally, he heads back to Vienna, to continue the Jewish song in a place it was silenced: Am Yisrael Chai! he sings, ending the show on one of the Reb’s most famous tunes.

In a way, “Soul Doctor” is the perfect medley of The Great White Way’s and Jewish triumphalism - the Jew rises from the ashes (as does the African-American descendent of slaves) to show the enemy that we can survive. But it tackles a bit too much: the Holocaust, the complex relationship between Hasidim and mitnagdim (Ashkenazi Jews who opposed Hasidic Judaism), between religion and secular society, between a man who can do great things but also be personally flawed: he can connect to many, but has trouble connecting to one. It tackles much, but does not reveal a lot about a man. The musical shows how the rabbi goes from a strictly chaste upbringing to believe in the power of touch, but does not touch upon the accusations of sexually inappropriate conduct against him.

The show, which was originally conceived as a one-woman-show by Neshama Carlebach, the older of the rabbi’s two daughters, is not exactly true, although it touches on the major notes of his life, which ended at 69 in 1994. Often considered the father of the “ba’al teshuva movement,” Carlebach was a great scholar who studied in some of the biggest yeshivas with great rabbis, and indeed was ostracized for much of his life for turning to song to revive the soul of the Jewish people.

What the musical does get right is the Jewish stuff: the Hebrew and the Yiddish is accurate - for once, in mainstream media - and the rabbi, here, with his hippy-dippy talk “holy sister,” “we’re all brothers,” made me feel I was actually in the room with him and his Hair-like singing entourage.

It gets it so right, though, that at times I felt like I was in shul: A musical, sing-a-long, spiritual, raucous shul, to be certain, but a synagogue just the same. And that might be a problem for this insider-baseball show, which might appeal to fans of the rabbi, of Jewish music, and Jewish history, but not many more. Perhaps the presence of Simone - and the drawing of the parallels between the Jewish and Black experience of suffering - will draw in another crowd. In the show, even Carlebach’s father marches with the Reverend Martin Luther King. It’s sad to note that these days the black and Jewish experience has diverged so greatly.

But what is most jarring is to watch such a brilliant and loving person struggle against the inflexible Judaism - a struggle that is still alive today, as much of religious Judaism is still too rigid to allow for creativity, renewal, and often, for unbridled love and joy.

The irony of the musical - of his life, really - is that ultimately, the Reb’s songs were adapted by the very sects that would reject him: at any ultra-Orthodox wedding or simcha there’s bound to be a jaunty or soulful Carlebach tune played. But most of the people there are probably ignorant of the song’s origins, or the values of the man who hoped to change the world. 

Actors Eric Anderson, left, and Amber Iman during a performance of the Broadway musical 'Soul Doctor.'Credit: AP

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