Shlomo and Nina: An unlikely duo

‘Soul Doctor’ tells the story of the fascinating relationship between Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Nina Simone (photo credit: SHERBAN LUPU)
‘Soul Doctor’ tells the story of the fascinating relationship between Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Nina Simone
(photo credit: SHERBAN LUPU)
THAT RABBI Shlomo Carlebach was a complex character no one can deny. Rabbi, mystic, singer, composer, storyteller, an ecstatic teacher who would often ask after he taught “What did I say?” as though he had entered a world even he did not fully grasp.
Perhaps it is no wonder given this that there is a dimension (or a number of dimensions) of his persona that people have not seen, or seen poorly, or through a glass darkly.
One of these dimensions is his relations to other people, Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, men and women. In this realm, too, he was unusual, not to say unique.
Coming from a background that frowned on touching others, especially women, he broke the boundaries and hugged and kissed everyone in sight. Sometimes he went too far, as he himself admitted. His excuse, that he was only trying to bring souls back to serve God, is not one that endears him to his critics. His opponents claim that he was influenced by the libertarian ethos in which he found himself in the 1960’s. Times changed and nowadays he has to be censured. What was right yesteryear is not the fashion today.
In the midst of these seismographic changes, American Daniel Weiss, himself both a rabbi and a theater director, scripted a musical in which the main focus is around a little-known relationship between Carlebach and Nina Simone. The black American singer and musician had an ongoing “connection” with Carlebach, especially during the years between1957 and 1965. The musical based on this relationship, “Soul Doctor,” played in North America and was staged recently as part of the Israel Festival and thereafter as a three-week run in Jerusalem’s Beit Shmuel theater.
“We were talking to his daughter, Neshama, about doing a biographical concert about her father,” Weiss told “The Jerusalem Report” in an interview. “I wasn’t quite sure what type of approach would work: his music and/or his life story. I wanted to be sure that it contained enough of a dramatic element to put on stage. Shlomo had not only a unique dramatic character, but also a very strong will, with inner obstacles and obstructions that were intertwined with his very strong personality. Here was a rabbi with a profound knowledge of the tradition who felt the urge to revive his generation after the Holocaust. His desire came from a deep love and a profound understanding of the roots of his heritage.”
“He saw the challenge of trying to adapt and transplant thousands of years of this very rich heritage to the contemporary world, a heritage which had been completely annihilated. After the Holocaust, he felt that the only way of life that makes sense is one that respects all peoples. We are all brothers and sisters, and we are all equal.
“There were other groups within Judaism that were concerned with re-building Judaism. But their way was by creating yeshivot, building a fortress and surviving that way. Shlomo decided that, as precarious and shaky as it seemed, we were not going to survive by building a ghetto-like structure around us, but rather by embracing the world, that these other groups preferred to ignore or denigrate.
“In this quest, he discovered the power of music and also another culture which, on the face of it, possessed a completely different background, history and cultural sensibility. Yet he found that this parallel world had much in common with his own. His desire to revive his own people meant being open to an influence from this completely different culture, that of the African-American black world. It was so completely different from the European heritage – especially for him, a Jew from Vienna with his Talmudic and hassidic background.
“For him to say that this was the way we’re going to reinvigorate ourselves, not just by something that we’ll take from others, was astounding. But he did it from a deep recognition that we have something profoundly in common with this other culture and that we should embrace and learn from it.
“Soul Doctor” is a story that you can relate to, even if you don’t know anything about Judaism, even if you have no background at all, never heard a Jewish song, never even seen ‘Fiddler on the Roof’’. It resonates as a humanistic show. We were invited to New Orleans to perform for people who didn’t know what shabbat was or what ‘shalom’ meant. Yet the show was so popular that the following year they invited us back for a six-week tour, which they then extended for an additional six weeks, all of which were completely sold out. They were dancing out of the theater singing Hebrew songs.”
One result of these responses were changes that Weiss made to original show: “I had to be very sensitive to the audience.
So many dramatic elements for the Jewish audiences had to be cut. Instead we focused the story on a meeting between two human beings. From there the show took off, We were on Broadway and off -Broadway, in Montreal in front of French-Canadians.
They said it drew the largest audiences for this type of musical show for a very long time. This is a great American story with a universal message.”
How did Weiss come across the story, which was known to few people, if at all? “My son told me that he heard that Shlomo had an affair with Nina or something of the sort,” recalls Weiss. “I never heard it from Shlomo directly. I did read an article also in which Shlomo talks all about his relationships, though not this one. Then I met a rabbi (Meyer Leifer) who was in yeshiva with him in Lakewood. They were on their way back to the yeshiva when Shlomo said to him: “Let’s stop by Coney Island, because Nina Simone is giving a concert there.” After the show they went back stage and they were kissing and hugging for an hour. I said to him: “Hey Rabbi, what does the Torah say?” And he said “You don’t understand.
This was a nation who was as suppressed as we were, and they found the joy and love to live on, especially through their music.
This is something we need to embrace.” My friend thought it was bizarre.
“Naturally, I wanted to corroborate these stories. I remembered that there were quite a few bootleg recordings from the early ‘sixties of Shlomo singing Negro Spirituals – like Sinner Man, Canaan Land etc., and a recording in Israel in 1967 where he was singing Canaan Land to a group of Israelis and he starts telling them how the blacks are full of the deepest wisdom. ‘People think of them as working class but we can learn from them.’ And then he proceeded to sing Negro spiritual after negro spiritual.
“In her Carnegie Hall debut in 1963, Nina Simone performed four Hebrew songs, two Israeli songs and two instrumentals – Od Neshama and Shabbat Shalom, Shlomo’s compositions.”
“In 1957, Shlomo went down to be a rabbi in Dorothy, New Jersey near Atlantic City for Jewish chicken farmers. He was fired because the chicken farmers were talking all through the prayers. So he told them, ‘If the chickens talked about you as much as you talk about them they wouldn’t have time to lay eggs!’ They didn’t like that. But at the back of the synagogue there was a piano and Shlomo, who had began to study music at that time, used that to work on his compositions.
“That year he met Nina Simone. Interestingly, they both had tough, super-religious mothers. Nina Simone (or Eunice Waymon as was her real name), had never been to bars, since she had been brought up strictly. Her mother was a preacher who told her to avoid ‘that kind of music.’ She changed her name so that her mother wouldn’t know that she was playing the devil’s music. She wasn’t singing then. But the bar owner told her if she wanted to play music in the bar she had to sing. So she sang the only song she knew, which was “I’ll Put a Spell on You,” by George Gershwin. And thus she became a singer. Eventually she became the voice of the Civil Rights movement and of the Black Revival. Now, after her death, she is probably the most influential American singer to bring political awareness to the stage. She wanted to change the world –she said this often. ‘If you want to be an artist you have to want to change the world. You can’t be an artist just to entertain people.’ That was so similar to Shlomo. Here were two people who started out not as singers and yet around 1957 they both became singers and wanted very much to change the destiny of their people.
“Then I read in an article that Shlomo said that when he met Nina they encouraged each other to sing music and she brought him to the black churches.”
This was not an idle boast. Weiss recalls an incident literally just before Carlebach died.
“He gave me a ride to the city on his way to a concert. I was a rabbi at the time in Palm Springs and I said to Shlomo ‘I must confess that my biggest inspiration before I preach is not a rabbi learning gemara, but when I see these priests from the Southern Baptist Church.. They are so inspiring!’ Shlomo said: “Hey brother, there isn’t a black church in the city that I haven’t been to; I go at every opportunity when I’m up in Harlem. When I was younger I used to tell my parents that on Sundays I was visiting the sick. Instead I used to sneak into these black churches. I couldn’t get enough of them.”
Not everyone was convinced of the Shlomo-Nina story. “There was even one newspaper claiming that the affair was a totally fabricated story. But her daughter, Lisa, told me that her mother herself told her she once had an affair with a Jewish Rabbi.
Her lawyer, an old Jewish guy, also told me about this affair. The owner of the Village Gate told me that they were together many times and that she would invite him up on stage to sing. So it’s a true story. This was a turning point in Shlomo’s life. It was a paradigm shift in not only his life but in the Jewish world. Here was Jewish gospel. We put that in the show. Of course there were complaints by Orthodox people who couldn’t come to terms with this part of the story. But take away this part of his life and Jewish experience would be completely different. Shlomo would have been a great cantor, or maybe he wouldn’t have been a musician at all. Nina for her part wanted to be recognized as a classical pianist.”
Despite the veracity of the story, Weiss had forgotten one essential item: “I hadn’t checked in with the Nina Simone Estate before we put the musical on. One Sunday, while we were staging the show in Miami Florida, I got a call from a press agent. She said ‘Your bass player in the show was also Nina Simone’s bass player. He’s bringing eight people to the show.’ I thought ‘vay is mir’ I never told them about the show or asked for rights.’ I could see myself being sent to jail for 25 years! That was when a miracle happened. The lighting board broke.
There was no other way of replacing it. I thought it gave me the chance to write to the lawyer and ask him for the rights, etc. I got up on stage and said: ‘I’m afraid the lighting board has gone and we can’t go ahead with the show. We’ll give you double the tickets’ costs. There was a packed house.
But no, they wanted a show. A New York lady shouted out “Leave the house lights on.
What’s the problem!?” No one wanted to leave.
“I went back to the hotel and then, after the show, someone phones me and says ‘you have to come down to the theater. Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa, is there and she is hugging and kissing the actress who plays her mother.’ When she sees me, she hugs me and says: ‘Everyone is trying to exploit my mother’s memory. I’m suing people left and right. We came here with our guns blazing.
We were going to shut you down. But two minutes into the show I saw how you were telling my mother’s story through the story of Shlomo. No one had really understood what my mother was about until now, and I was in tears.’ By the way, Lisa is a great singer and actress in her own right and has starred in Aida on Broadway.”
“THE LAST time Shlomo saw Nina was at the Village Gate in 1965. He was hugging and kissing her back stage, while she was pregnant with Lisa. Nina’s husband was an abusive ex-NYPD cop. A very jealous man, he once tied Nina to a chair and beat her up.
So when he saw Shlomo he began screaming: ‘How do I know he’s not the father of this baby?’ Shlomo said to him “Wait, wait.
If it comes out and has a beard you’ll know its mine!” Everyone began to laugh. That’s the way Shlomo escaped with his life.
“I have no idea what the dynamic of the relationship was, but I know the results of that relationship. It was a pivotal time for both of them at that time in their careers.
Nina didn’t know about the Holocaust, she didn’t even know about WW2 until an uncle of hers told them that he was in a war. Shlomo, too, was naive in the ways of the world.
He had never touched a woman until his experience at the Village Gate. The impact it had on his life, and certainly how it influenced the Jewish revival today, was enormous. Those that have issues with his relationship with Nina should asked themselves why. Maybe if she was Scottish it wouldn’t have been so bad. But you know what it was about. It was about her being black.
“In the States, Chassidic groups that came to the show and found themselves in the middle of a church with gospel singers singing Hebrew songs. They had crossed a line themselves, since it’s probably the first time any of them had gone to a Broadway show. But then they were carried away by the choreography which causes audiences to rise to their feet. It’s irresistible. They feel that the show takes them to a pure spiritual place, and the story they see is just about joy.
They didn’t think that they were in a church, or that this is about a particular religion.”
One of the major revelations that emerged from the show was the effect that it has on Daniel Weiss himself.
“I myself never went into a church.
Churches were out of bounds for religious boy like me. I grew up in a very religious home. I went to Lithuanian yeshivot and was very close to the Lubavitcher rebbe and had many long meetings with him. At Lubavitch, I gained my semicha, my ordination. I wrote serious books on the Talmud (though when I started to get involved in theater some of those books were banned!).
So I have that background. I was very involved in that world as well as in the art world. In this production I really found myself, because I was able to bring these very disparate worlds together. It resonated with me. The tensions between these two worlds can be daunting. I know someone who was disowned by his parents for having piano lessons! Being an artist of any sort is bound to clash with a traditional family. You feel like your rebelling against God himself.”
Alongside Weiss is the choreographer, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, who is an African-American and deeply spiritual in his approach to his work. “The divine path takes you where you’re meant to be,” he says mysteriously. “I can put into the show the universal message that Shlomo had about love, acceptance and humility. As a cast member, as well as the choreographer shaping the show, I have tried to use the movement of the cast’s actors to tell the soulful essence of this story. The sounds of Shlomo’s music and of Nina’s is what excites me. This is a theatrical telling of Shlomo’s experience. We don’t want to make this show so specific, by doing ‘Jewish’ steps or ‘Church’ steps. It has to be the passion of the moment. People can relate to that. If you want to see a traditional church dance you can go to a church, but if you want to see something that’s going to touch your inner being and your soul you’ll come to see our show. Music, dance, speaking and art is contagious and inspiring when you experience it. The music is the DNA for me, the map upon which I created the choreography.
When I hear Shlomo’s music its a different pulse from Nina’s music but I love having that range and expression. That’s what is beautiful about the show. The basis of it is a pulse which can be expressed in so many different ways. It touches all sorts of different people. Then they look at each other and they’re liking it and we’re liking it. Wow! That’s what art does. It can bring into the same room different people and we see that we all have the same love and are able to inspire each other.”
What of the claim by some critics that there are a number of inaccuracies in the script. Weiss puts this down to poetic license. “I’m a scholarly writer, “ he says.
“I could put footnotes to every line in the show pointing to the source for the particular scene. When the show is finished I have in mind to print the script with footnotes and recordings of people who actually said things that we quote in the show. And things that Shlomo told me himself. There are elements that are not based on Shlomo’s life. His father, for example, never went to San Francisco, neither did his father open a yeshiva; he was a synagogue rabbi. He didn’t march in Selma, but he did march in Washington with Martin Luther King. He never said, “I prayed with my legs,” That was Heschel. So it wasn’t exactly like that, but for dramaturgical reasons we morphed some of these scenes together to make a more coherent whole. As the English writer, Elisabeth Taylor, wrote: “All writing is fiction.”