‘Soul Doctor’
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‘Soul Doctor’

Shlomo Carlebach's story comes to Broadway

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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An exhuberant Eric Anderson brings Shlomo Carlebach to life in “Soul Doctor.” Photos © Carol Rosegg

Nearly twenty years after his death, Shlomo Carlebach remains a central presence in Jewish music, tradition and culture. It is difficult today to be at a simcha without finding yourself dancing to one of his melodies. Around the world, synagogues across the denominational spectrum hold Carlebach minyanim. Some Jewish musical groups, like the Moshav band and Soul Farm, still perform in Carlebach style, and Shlomo Carlebach’s daughter Neshama carries on the tradition in her performances and in the play “Soul Doctor,” which she helped bring to life.

Being in Shlomo Carlebach’s company was a transformative experience, whether you joined him on Simchat Torah at his shul on West 79th Street in Manhattan, at his moshav, Mevo Modi’im, or in a concert setting here, in eastern Europe, or in Israel. Carlebach was product of a different era, a time that brought us Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and music tied to the peace movement.

What Shlomo did was to transform Jewish music and adapt it for the times. His songs of freedom were heard and sung by Jews in the Soviet Union, the litany of peace songs he wrote affected disaffected Jews, and the liturgy that he created inspired a generation of Jews looking for meaning and spirituality.

He was an imposing figure.

As “Soul Doctor” begins, a bearded man in hippie garb shuffles down the aisle from the back of the room, as some cantors still sometimes do when they open the service. I turned around and looked up and for a moment I thought I saw a ghost. It was Shlomo, looking right at me, eye to eye, in the mesmerizing manner that I recall from the two or three times I saw him. The actor Eric Anderson indeed is Shlomo, from the moment you first meet him through the play’s final moments, when he jumps up and down, guitar in hand, like only Shlomo could do. “Soul Doctor” is a biographical musical review of the life of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, the “Singing Rabbi,” and Anderson is so good.

The first scene of “Soul Doctor” has us in Vienna, with Shlomo’s return to the city of his youth. He has come to sing songs of peace and to replace the hate that he experienced there in the 1930s with love. Anderson sings a song, and you could close your eyes and almost believe you are hearing Reb Shlomo. Writer and director Daniel S. Wise uses three powerful themes throughout the biomusical – the impact that experiencing the Shoah firsthand had on Carlebach, the partnership that Jews and African-Americans experienced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Carlebach’s counterculture encounters in California.

When Shlomo’s family is ordered out of Vienna, the one person who is shot dead is Moishele, the singer/performer who introduces music to the yeshiva-bokher. From that moment, when he becomes a survivor, music is absent in the life of this gifted student. That changes when he comes under a variety of influences in his new home in Brooklyn, including the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Wise sets into motion Shlomo’s path from being the supposed successor to his father’s pulpit to Lubavitch emissary to becoming someone who wants to reach out even further to the unaffiliated and disconnected. At moments, early on, it feels that you are watching a variation on the 1927 “The Jazz Singer,” with the father begging his son to take his place at the shul, rather than desert him and sing to the masses.

There may not be enough understanding of the relationship between Jews and blacks in mid-20th century America, but Jews clearly related to and often participated in the civil rights movement. Wise shows how African-American would-be singer Nina Simone affects Shlomo’s musical sense, just as he becomes her chief cheerleader. This black-Jewish liaison pushes both careers forward as Shlomo realizes through her the potential of music in prayer, and Nina, with Shlomo’s help, makes her way to Carnegie Hall.

The similarities in their backgrounds become clear when Nina tells Shlomo of the prejudice she experienced growing up in the South, something that she says he could never comprehend, and he responds by telling her about Austria in the 1930s. Amber Imam as Nina is spectacular, and she is joined by a terrific cast of singers and dancers.

From the yeshiva, and then Nina’s gospel music, we continue the journey with Shlomo to San Francisco, where he founds the “House of Love and Prayer.” Just as he has done throughout the show, Benoit-Swan Pouffer uses the opportunity to introduce choreography that might look a bit like “Hair” but is well presented. At this point, Shlomo’s music shifts, as does his lifestyle, but we only get a sense of how he relates to women, as Wise clearly has chosen to stay clear of this subject. It is here, however, in the midst of free-loving Haight-Ashbury, that Shlomo’s music takes shape, and that various parts of the established Jewish world embrace, reject, or condemn it. Reb Pinchas (Rob Orbach), Shlomo’s chief critic and alter ego, who appears throughout the play, often questions his choices.

For anyone who has ever been affected by having encountered Shlomo Carlebach in person or has been deeply moved by his music, this is a performance that you surely will enjoy. For everyone else, “Soul Doctor” is a story about a complicated man who changed Jewish life by doing Jewish outreach in a most unusual way. As Shaul Magid, the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Modern Judaism at Indiana University in Bloomington, wrote in Tablet, Carlebach “brought many souls back to ‘traditional’ Judaism by making Judaism untraditional.”

“Soul Doctor” is a play with strong performances, incredible melody, and a moving story about a man whose music continues to revolutionize Jewish life and culture to this day.

“Soul Doctor” is playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York.

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