The “Soul Doctor” comes to San Diego: First Stop on the Singing Rabbi Musical Tourby Pat Launer February 26, 2018
He’s been called the Rebel Rabbi, the Rock & Roll Rabbi, the Folk-Singing Rockstar Rabbi, the Peace and Love Troubadour, even a life-changing cult figure.
You can judge for yourself at the upcoming production of “Soul Doctor, The musical journey of Shlomo Carlebach” (April 3-22 at the Lyceum Theatre).
Reb Shlomo, as he was known to his followers, was a rabbi, religious teacher, composer and singer considered to be the foremost religious Jewish songwriter of the 20th century. In a career that spanned 40 years, he wrote thousands of melodies (many of them still heard in synagogues today), and recorded more than 25 albums.
He was a pioneer of the Baal teshuva movement (“returnees to Judaism”) that encouraged disenchanted Jewish youth to re-embrace their heritage, using his special brand of enlightened teaching, coupled with his inspiring stories and songs.
Carlebach was born in Berlin in 1925. He had a twin brother, who also became a rabbi. Their father was a noted Orthodox rabbi in Berlin, part of a rabbinical dynasty. As the war and the Nazi horror ramped up in Germany, the family fled to Vienna. By 1933, they were in Switzerland.
Shlomo emigrated to Lithuania in 1938, where he became a yeshiva student. That same year, his father became the rabbi of a small synagogue on the Upper West Side of New York. After their father died in 1967, Shlomo and his brother took over that synagogue. Despite his hectic performing and touring schedule, Shlomo remained the spiritual leader of what’s now known as the Carlebach Shul, until his death.
In the 1940s, Shlomo pursued extensive religious study in New York and New Jersey, and was considered to be a gifted, brilliant student.
In 1950, he set up a small Torah learning group, which he called TSGG (pronounced tas-gig), an acronym for “Taste and See God is Good.”
When he was 25, he took a crash-course in Hebrew, and the next year, in a special program at Columbia University, he learned English. Prior to that, he spoke primarily in Yiddish. He developed an unusual grammar, mixing Yiddish and English, which became his hallmark, and later influenced the language of his followers.
The Singing Rabbi
Shlomo began writing songs at the end of the 1950s, primarily based on the Torah and prayers. Although he composed thousands of songs, he could not read music. Many of his soulful renderings of Torah verses became standards in the wider Jewish community, including “Am Yisroel Chai” (‘The nation of Israel Lives’) and “Adir Hu” (‘He is Mighty’), composed in the 1960s on behalf of the plight of Soviet Jews.
He was affiliated with the Chabad/Lubavitch movement at first, but then he went on his own unique path. He found his way to Greenwich Village, where he met folkies like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, who encouraged his career and helped him get a spot in the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1966.
Shlomo met singer/songwriter/activist Nina Simone, the jazzy, bluesy, R&B African American Queen of Soul, at a bar in Atlantic City, and they struck up a musical friendship (some say it was more than that, but the relationship has been hotly debated). Simone recorded “Sinner Man,” a song Carlebach often sang in performance.
After his Berkeley folk performance, he decided to remain in the Bay area, to reach out to what he called “lost Jewish souls.” He opened a center called the House of Love and Prayer, to attract young people with song, dance and communal gatherings. His Hasidic melodies began to be infused with jazz and a psychedelic tinge. He played on a bill with Jefferson Airplane and other singing stars of the era.
His message resonated far beyond his concerts, recordings and interpersonal relationships. He preached a neo-Hasidic egalitarian Judaism, which was about inclusive diversity and unity, not uniformity. His non-judgmental way of appreciating others endeared him to a wide range of followers.
Though ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, he was able to “move across borders” between denominations of Judaism and beyond the faith, to spiritual leaders from Christianity to Sufism to Buddhism.
A Rocky Road
Shlomo’s path was not without difficulty or controversy. He was married and divorced; one of his two daughters, Neshama, carries on his musical legacy, touring regularly and playing his music.
He struggled to harmonize his traditional beliefs with the “free love” generation of the ‘60s. He fought against the rigid tenets of Hasidism and Jewish orthodoxy. His unconventional approach to kiruv (the Hebrew term for Orthodox Judaism’s outreach) made other rabbis uncomfortable. Although his Aquarian mysticism had a Yiddishe heart, he was ostracized by many in the Orthodox community. Ironically, his songs were later adopted by the very sects that rejected him.
Shlomo’s interactions with women were particularly suspect to the rabbinical community.
Rabbi Carlebach took down the separation between women and men in his own synagogue, he encouraged women to study and teach Jewish texts, and he gave private ordination to women before most mainstream Jewish institutions. In 1989, defying the Orthodox Jewish establishment, he presided as the feminist group, Women of the Wall, read from their own Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
He also abandoned the Orthodox injunction that men and women not touch publicly. In fact, he was known for his frequent hugs – of men and women alike – and often said his hope was to hug every Jew – perhaps every person – on earth.
But three years after his sudden death in 1994, at age 69, Lilith magazine, which calls itself “independent, Jewish and frankly feminist,” published long-standing allegations of sexual impropriety and inappropriate touching or interactions. Accusers were quoted, as were sources among Jewish communal leaders. Even Shlomo Carlebach had a #MeToo moment.
The issue was not confronted in an exhaustive 2003 biography, “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, Legacy.” by Natan Ophir, although the author did mention finding no evidence of a romance between Shlomo and Nina Simone.
Clearly, certain elements of Carlebach’s life remain shrouded in ambiguity. Still, no one denies that he was larger than life, an enormously charismatic man, with an undeniably compelling life story.
So why not tell this prolific singer/songwriter’s tale in a musical?
Singing like Shlomo:
“Soul Doctor” 1.0
“Soul Doctor, the Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi,” with a book by Daniel S. Wise, and lyrics by David Schechter, had short-lived Broadway and Off Broadway runs in 2012-2013. The musical was compared to “The Jazz Singer,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Rent” and “Hair.”
In one of two San Diego connections to the show, former San Diegan Eric Anderson, now a Broadway veteran, starred in the original versions.
As Lisa Klug, a reviewer on the website jewlicious.com put it, the show evoked “a full roller coaster of emotion: nachas, shpilkis, laughter and tears.” (Not sure that’s the right use of shpilkis, which is the Yiddish equivalent of ‘ants in the pants,’ but you get the idea). The writer was impressed that Anderson portrayed Carlebach so convincingly that she was surprised to learn that he isn’t Jewish. He “radiates with sweet Shlomo-like smiles, humility and warmth,” she said.
She came away thinking about Shlomo, that it was “almost incomprehensible that someone who personally underwent so much pain, and felt so much of the world’s pain, [could create such] a lasting legacy of joy.”
Other critics were less enthusiastic.
Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times that “Soul Doctor” was a “bizarre and sometimes bewildering musical,” with its severe tonal shifts from Nazi killings to flower power.
“He’s a rabbi with a cause, yes,” Isherwood continued, “but the cause never comes into clear focus.”
This, despite the fact that Shlomo’s daughter, Neshama, was closely involved in the creation of the musical.
Enter Gabriel Barre (pronounced like Barry), a New York-based actor/singer/writer/director with Broadway, Off Broadway and regional credits a mile long, who specializes in re-shaping acclaimed revivals and developing new musicals.
From Barre and the original creators springs a brand new edition of “Soul Doctor,” now subtitled “A Musical Journey of Shlomo Carlebach.” The entire show has been re-conceived, and begins a world tour in San Diego.
One talented member of the company, San Diegan Dylan Hoffinger, plays young Shlomo and other characters.
“Soul Doctor” 2.0
“I think that this version is a more exciting approach,” says Barre. “The Broadway version was a big splashy musical that I had nothing to do with. It was smaller Off Broadway.”
The writers and the producer reached out to Barre, he says, and they were “swept away by my ideas.
“Almost everything is revised and re-written, though the essence of the musical remains. They’re looking at this as the show they always wanted to have. We’ve pared it down to a one-act experience. It may just be a sort of ‘60s ‘happening,’ with an after-concert that involves the audience even more.”
Now, instead of a straight-ahead bio-musical, Barre and company are “trying to emulate Shlomo himself – at shuls, concerts, at the House of Love and Prayer, singing in a commune-like place that attracted people from all faiths and religions. It’s as if he were doing it himself; it’s an extension of one of his gatherings.”
The show is now set in the House of Love and Prayer in Haight-Ashbury, 1968. Barre compares the structure to the multi-Tony Award-winning 1965 musical “Man of La Mancha,” where the prison inmates re-enact the story of Don Quixote.
“The audience,” says Barre, “will be welcomed by the cast when they enter. They’ll walk into an atmosphere, and won’t even necessarily recognize when the show begins. It’s more like ‘Hair’ than ‘Jersey Boys.’ It’s about one man and his followers.
“Shlomo’s ‘Holy Beggars’ – as his followers were called – are a tribe from all walks of life and religions,” Barre explains. “They’re givers of charity. They are all these disparate characters, and then the show springs forth from that. The 20-person cast will also be the band, swapping instruments as they go. They’re all amazing actor/musicians and musician/actors.”
And our native son, Dylan, Barre asserts, “is gonna be terrific. He’s a real talent.” Dylan will travel with the show from San Diego to a month-long run in Los Angeles, followed by 4-6 weeks in Jerusalem.
Last September, Barre, the son of an Episcopal minister, took a research trip to Israel in preparation for the production; he calls it “a truly life-changing experience.”
“I knew about Shlomo,” he says, “and the show and the character and the music. But his life was so compelling, his story is so universal. What drew me was the message of inclusivity and love he preached. He said we have a better chance of celebrating what binds us as human beings if we accept and are open, rather than closing off and remaining dedicated to our own rigid beliefs.
“His message is incredibly relevant and timely, and it will make the show really resonate.”
“Soul Doctor” runs in the Lyceum Theatre from April 3-22.
For tickets and information: 619-544-1000; lyceumevents.org.