A legacy of love

Singer Neshama Carlebach is carrying on the work of her late father, but in no way feels overshadowed.

neshama carlebach 88.298 (photo credit: )
neshama carlebach 88.298
(photo credit: )
The sense of loss and despair was raw and the tears were still flowing, but in spite of that, just one month after her father Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach passed away, Neshama Carlebach took to the stage to launch her professional career and lifelong mission: to fill the void she feels was left in the world when her father died. Now, 15 years later, her resolve to carry on her father's legacy is as strong as ever. Carlebach is here from New York primarily for a personal visit but also to perform in several concerts across the country. She took time out before a Kabbalat Shabbat performance at the Adam School on Emek Refaim to discuss her trip to Israel, her current projects and her father, who was the catalyst and is the inspiration for all her projects. Standing on the grass in the one shady spot of the Beit Sefer courtyard, surrounded by the bustle of the Friday Emek Refaim shoppers, Carlebach launches straight into an effortless and natural discussion. She explains that she is in Israel mainly to visit family and to attend a close friend's wedding. "It's nice to do something for myself for once. I feel like I miss everything because I have a schedule that can't be played with. So when I am able to be here because I want to be here and the shows fall into place, it's a nice gift," she says. Having signed a record with Sojourn Records about a year ago, a deal that has just been picked up by Sony, Carlebach is excited by what this means for her career. Her upcoming CD, which will be her seventh, is a collaborative effort with a gospel choir. "I am actually at a very exciting point in my career right now," she says. "I am working with the gospel choir. It is all my father's music but it is an interfaith, coming together of worlds with this beautiful gospel choir, and the music is fabulous." For the most part, the gospel project has been received positively by members of the New York Jewish community, with various Conservative and Reform congregations inviting them to perform in synagogues throughout New York. However, others, particularly within the Orthodox community, have been more skeptical. "They get very upset. They think I am Jews for Jesus. They think I am bringing people to churches." But she explains the importance of the project, which she views as a continuation of her father's work - he actually sang with a gospel choir in Harlem for his first album, Haneshama Lach, and worked with churches throughout his life. "Humanity is suffering. It is not just the Jews. The people I work with are the holiest people in the world. We do not exist in a religious setting. We are doing concerts and we are coexisting as people who follow the same path towards holiness. They are not trying to convert me and I am not trying to convert them. We are celebrating life together," she explains. In addition, Carlebach is dedicating herself to tzedaka and recently established a non-profit project, Soul Journey, whereby 60 of her shows each year will be accessible to the public for free. "It occurred to me that I don't like charging for my work. My stress about the parnasa [earning a livelihood] end of it has never felt right; and even though it is a necessary part of my work, it is not what I want, so I decided to become a non-profit for my religious, my interfaith and tzedaka parts of my work," she says. "Since I decided to do this, I have been totally broke," she laughs, "but I have never been happier in my life and feel like I am following in my father's footsteps." Unlike her father, who Neshama believes died prematurely due to the pace, stress and instability of charity work, Neshama hopes to create a structure and stability for her project by involving various non-profit organizations and continuing with private, for-profit performances. "My father exhausted and depleted himself because he didn't get paid," she says. "I am trying to bring my father to the world and create a structure that he didn't have because he went everywhere in the world just to hug one lonely yiddele and never got paid for it," she says. "He went, no matter what." When asked what if feels like to always be referred to as the daughter of Shlomo Carlebach, Neshama explains that she couldn't be prouder. "I love the link," she says assuredly. "The problem is that people need to take the credit on to themselves. But I would be nothing without my father or without my team. I don't need the credit. I know who I am. If they want to call me Shlomo Carlebach's daughter, they can. That is how I define myself." The rabbi's daughter did feel the pressure immediately after his death to continue his legacy. With little time to mourn, she took on the concerts that he had booked for the year to come. She explains that even if she had wanted to get out of performing at that point, she wouldn't have been able to because of the number of requests for his presence. "When he died, there was a darkness in the world. There was a need for someone to fill his place. I was so terrified at that point that he would be forgotten that I didn't think twice, and I took all the shows." It soon became clear to her that performing in his honor was what she needed to do in the long term. "It did feel like a pressure a few months after his loss. But after I was able to, I realized that that was what I wanted to do in his honor," she says. Carlebach loves all her father's music, but her favorite melody is one that "Veshamru," part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, is set to. It has been adopted by synagogues and families worldwide. She says she likes it the best because it was sung on Shabbat, a time when she could be with her father each week. "It was the time that our father would sit with us. He wasn't going anywhere and couldn't leave home, and I felt it was powerful because it was song about love," she says.