A rabbi walks into a bar

The musical ‘Soul Doctor’ spins the tale of Shlomo Carlebach

A scene from the musical ‘Soul Doctor’  (photo credit: KEN JAQUES)
A scene from the musical ‘Soul Doctor’
(photo credit: KEN JAQUES)
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach is an ideal subject for a musical or, for that matter, a work in practically any artistic discipline. He was colorful, mercurial, controversial and charismatic. He was a sort of love-him-or-loathe him character.
In some Orthodox, and certainly haredi, circles he was considered to be beyond the pale, but he was also adored and admired by thousands across the globe. In the 1960s, he became an integral part of the free love, hippie scene and got involved in the civil rights movement. It was at one of the latter events that Daniel Wise first met the rock star rabbi, not that he remembers too much about it. “My parents were at a demonstration in the South Side of Chicago,” Wise explains. “I was six months old at the time.” Besides demonstrating for equal rights for African Americans, Wise’s mother was enchanted by Carlebach, and the two became very close, as did the troubadour and Wise as the youngster grew up. Some of that personal insight into what made Carlebach tick and some of Carlebach’s pivotal experiences and relationships are central to Wise’s musical Soul Doctor , which will be performed at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem on June 7 to 9 as part of this year’s Israel Festival. The show has been doing the rounds of North America for the past eight years, beginning in New Orleans in 2010 and making it to Broadway three years later. The current production, which stars Tony Award nominee Josh Young and our own Ester Rada, will run at Beit Shmuel for six weeks after the festival ends.
Most of us are familiar with at least a couple of Carlebach’s scores, possibly without knowing who the source is. But how much do we really know about the life of the singing rabbi? Patrons of Soul Doctor will leave the auditorium with a much better, possibly more intimate, knowledge of who he was and what made him such a celebrated, and denigrated, figure in the Jewish world and beyond.
“Knowing Shlomo was a part of my life that I guess was a lot more important and more influential than I thought back then,” observes Wise. “I was never a Shlomo groupie. I grew up in a different community. But I did know him at the beginning of my life and at the end of his life.” Carlebach passed away in 1994 at the age of 69. While most think of Carlebach as American, in fact he was born in Berlin and spent some of his childhood in Baden bei Wien, near Vienna, after his parents opted to distance themselves from Hitler- controlled Germany. That was followed by a move to Lithuania, before Carlebach’s father landed a job with a community in New York in 1938.
By all accounts, Carlebach was just another good Jewish youngster furthering his religious education and preparing for a life in the Jewish straight and narrow. “When he was at Lakewood Yeshiva [in New Jersey, the largest haredi yeshiva in the US], he didn’t read a newspaper for 10 years,” says Wise. But something was afoot in the budding rabbi’s emotional machinations. He felt constricted and began to develop the notion that there was a whole world to be discovered out there.
Cue one of the iconic figures of the 1950s jazz, blues and later folk scene, Nina Simone. “Shlomo was a rabbi at a nearby synagogue, and he walks into a bar where Nina Simone was playing,” Wise explains. It was an epiphanous juncture in Carlebach’s life path and musical evolution. “He was really mesmerized by her and her music,” Wise continues. “She introduced him to gospel and jazz. She took him to black churches and Negro spirituals, and he taught her Hebrew songs. He wasn’t writing music at that time.” Carlebach’s spiritual and musical path also crossed that of many of the key players on the folk revival scene, including the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
While Soul Doctor is about Carlebach, it is not always factually accurate. “This is not a biographical show,” Wise notes. Certain sacrifices had to be made in the creative process. “I focus very much on the Nina Simone relationship and the conflicts involved in his going back to Vienna [to perform in the 1960s]. Soul Doctor didn’t work as a biographical show. That wouldn’t even work as theater. It would become an epic film. We focus on a turning point in his life and what influenced him, to give a background to his story and a context to where he took it,” he says.
But Wise definitely wanted to convey the spirit of the man and how he managed to accrue such a large and enthused following here and around the world. Carlebach and his supporters were instrumental in establishing a moshav called Mevo Modi’im in 1964, which attracted an eclectic bunch of people, including some who passed through Carlebach’s House of Love and Prayer commune, which was located at the epicenter of the hippie counterculture universe in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. Carlebach’s all-embracin’ all-lovin’ ethos did not go down too well with many in mainstream Jewish circles, and particularly with his father. In the musical, Carlebach’s dad visits his son at the House of Love and Prayer, which did not take place in real life. “It was important for dramatic effect,” Wise explains. “You have to have drama.”
Wise may have taken some biographical liberties, but he gets the singing rabbi’s vibe across clearly and entertainingly. “Shlomo was about unity,” says Wise. “He had the boldness to say we have to rid our hearts of anger, fill our hearts with joy, accept everyone and make a better world for our children, and find what we have in common.” Music and love aren’t a bad place to start that.
For tickets and more information: https://www.israel- festival.org/en/