Almost 20 years after his death, Shlomo Carlebach is still a problem.
To some fans, Carlebach was the “Singing Rabbi,” a folk music star who performed alongside Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. To others he was a scholar and a sage, a talmudic genius and a spiritual leader in the tradition of the early Hasidic rebbes. In certain circles he’s viewed as an architect of Orthodox outreach while elsewhere he’s a 1960s hippie who broke with Orthodoxy in favor of ecumenism and egalitarianism. And to many critics he was a charismatic guru whose reputation is forever tarnished by allegations of sexual abuse against women.
Despite the problems of his legacy, Carlebach easily eclipsed any other composer or performer of Jewish music in the 20th century. If you ever attended a Jewish school, summer camp, youth group or synagogue, you have heard his songs. You can likely hum some of them, even if you don’t know that they’re his. (Consider his anthem in support of Soviet Jewry, “Am Yisrael Chai.”) Carlebach changed the sound of Judaism and he did it from Berkeley to Bnei Brak. No other Jewish musician has come close to that kind of achievement.
Now, Carlebach is the subject of a Broadway musical, “Soul Doctor,” which opened August 15 at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square Theatre. Written and directed by Daniel S. Wise — a theater producer whose parents were friendly with Carlebach — and featuring English lyrics to Carlebach melodies by David Schechter, another New York stage veteran, “Soul Doctor” was already a hit with audiences off-Broadway and in Florida before arriving on 50th Street. But like Carlebach himself, the musical’s themes resist easy definition.
Even while Carlebach was alive, his followers had difficulty piecing together the different aspects of his life. Born in Berlin in 1925 to a prominent rabbinic family, Carlebach fled to New York with his parents and siblings in 1939, where his father became the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jacob on West 79th Street. (Following his father’s death in 1967, Carlebach, together with his twin brother, Eli Chaim Carlebach, would take over the pulpit of what his now known as the Carlebach Shul.) After studying at elite yeshivas such as Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., Carlebach joined the Hasidic milieu of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who encouraged him to conduct outreach to university students.
This mission turned out to be Carlebach’s forté, though he soon departed from the Lubavitch mode to create his own model of folksinger, Hasidic storyteller and spiritual guru, all rolled into one. In 1959 he released his first album, “Haneshama Lach” and in 1966 he performed at the Berkeley Folk Festival alongside Pete Seeger and Jefferson Airplane. In 1968 one of his early San Francisco followers, Aryae Coopersmith, rented a house for Carlebach and his entourage in the city’s Inner Richmond district, calling it the House of Love and Prayer. Surrounded by his “holy hippielekh,” the Singing Rabbi had joined the counterculture.