‘Every moment of prayer is relevant’

‘Every moment of prayer is relevant’

Neshama Carlebach to be High Holiday cantor in Glen Rock

Neshama Carlebach
Neshama Carlebach

Many synagogues hire cantors for the High Holy Days.

That’s when so-called three-day-a-year Jews show up in shul, to join their more observant peers. It’s when synagogue buildings are stuffed full of people, clergy prepare their sermons and messages and melodies, professional and lay leaders puzzle out security and logistics, and in general the community shows itself off to its members and to the outside world.

So although many synagogues hire cantors who might be well known within their own circles but don’t have outside reputations, others look outside.

That’s what the Glen Rock Jewish Center did (although, perhaps ironically, its services are open only to its members). Its High Holy Day cantor will be Neshama Carlebach, the glamorous, charismatic singer until recently better known as a performer than as a shlichat tzibur, the representative of the community tasked with bringing their prayers to God.

Ms. Carlebach’s progression from being the Orthodox daughter of the famed musician, composer, story-teller and all-around cynosure Shlomo Carlebach — talk about charisma, the man was a magnet and his audiences were iron filings — who was revealed in the years after his death also to be an abuser of many of the young women drawn to him — to being a performer in her own right, to now becoming both a performer and a public davener, is culminating in her appearance at Glen Rock. It’s the first such job she’s taken, she said, and the path that led her there has included many twists.

The first time she led public prayer was soon after her father died, which happened, suddenly and shockingly, when she was 20 years old.

“That is when I started leading women’s tefillah,” she said. “Women would ask me to daven Kabbalat Shabbat,” the service that welcomes in Shabbat, “but not the Barchu, God forbid, or the Shema.” In other words, she was allowed to lead all-women’s groups in the parts of the service that do not require a minyan, but she’d have to stop before the Barchu, the formal call to prayer. “We’d skip over the middle part of the service,” she explained. “I couldn’t even imply that we were doing the Amidah,” the silent, minyan-requiring prayer at the service’s heart. “I would just stop. We couldn’t say Kaddish either. But I accepted it wholly. I was a woman. This was my place. I was limited, and that was okay.

“Most of the time I would be in a shul basement,” she added. “There’d be no publicity, only word of mouth. People would promote the concert, though.”

Ms. Carlebach has been thinking about her life a lot since the pandemic began. “I’ve been writing a memoir,” she said. “It’s about how I began my career, the gift and the burden that it has been to be my father’s daughter, and a woman.

“It’s my hope that my journey can help others transcend and transform their own lives and find their own inner strength.”

So back to that journey.

Ms. Carlebach, who now is 47 years old, is the older of her parents’ two daughters. She began going on the road with her father 10 months before he died; they performed one song together. He’d booked a year of concerts, it turned out that he was a better musician than businessman, and “my family would lose our home if I didn’t work,” Ms. Carlebach said. “I had no choice but to go to work. If you had met me then, I would have said that I was continuing his work.

Neshama Carlebach performs in 2016.

“I desperately did not want to, but I had no choice. It was terrifying. I went to work to support my family.”

When Shlomo Carlebach died, the tours he’d booked were for mixed audiences, mainly in synagogues; some were Conservative and others were Orthodox. The Conservative ones had no problem with Neshama performing for them, but many of the Orthodox ones did. Some canceled the engagements, and some of those wanted their deposits back; some let her sing, but only for women. She was running into the prohibition against kol isha; literally “woman’s voice,” it is the prohibition against men hearing a woman’s voice, most generally raised in song. (There are many understandings of kol isha; the most stringent keep a woman from speaking in public if there are any men present, and the most lenient do not allow a woman to sing alone in front of men but allow just about everything up to that.)

“Apparently, according to the experts, the first woman to break kol isha was me,” Ms. Carlebach said. “I was slammed for it; there were some death threats, and some very aggressive, very very angry people telling me that I was bringing shame to my family, and that my father’s soul was going to hell, or that it was already in hell and I was making it worse and asking me how dare I bring down the holiness of my father’s family, with 25 generations of rabbis.” Other angry people also blamed her father for having only daughters.

“People also said that I was too sexy.”

It’s not as if the family wasn’t used to problems, Ms. Carlebach said. “My father sang everywhere, and he was always in trouble for something. He wasn’t easy.” But then, in 1998, Lilith came out with its well-sourced, thoroughly reported story, “where women said that he molested them, and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know.”

The years between the story breaking and 2017 were hard, as Ms. Carlebach figured out what being her father’s daughter meant, and what her voice meant, both literally and figuratively. But then, in 2017, Harvey Weinstein was arrested, the Me Too movement began, “and my father became the Jewish poster child. And his music began to be canceled, and by extension I was canceled too.

“I was shut down.”

It is hard to overestimate how deeply Shlomo Carlebach’s music has become part of Jewish prayer in many parts of the Jewish world; many people know his music without having any idea that he wrote it. Canceling him was a major project.

In response, Ms. Carlebach wrote two blog posts for the Times of Israel where she acknowledged the great pain her father had caused, made clear that she supported his victims, and also recalled the father she knew as kind and generous; someone who supported her. Also, she remembered him as someone vastly complicated, driven by demons, open to change; someone who died before the changing world could have changed him. The posts are called “My sisters, I hear you”; the subtitle is “I accept the fullness of who my father Shlomo Carlebach was, flaws and all. I am in this conversation. I am also broken.”

Since then, Ms. Carlebach has written about how she has grown beyond her father and become very deeply herself.

Until recently, she said, “I didn’t know who I was. I have no idea how other people discover their identities at a younger age. I did it in my 40s. I am so grateful that I discovered health and balance, so that I could be a good mom and partner and wife; a different kind of activist and artist, and to lead prayer.”

“My father would say that our prayer was important, and that God hears women.” Other people told her that “because I was a woman, I didn’t matter.” But over time, she realized that to be untrue.

In 2014, Ms. Carlebach went to the Reform movement’s biennial. “That was the first time that I was in a space where women were davening and reading Torah and having aliyot,” she said. “I cried for three days.

This is from the cover of Ms. Carlebach’s 2019 album, “Believe.”

“And I realized that I had colleagues. I never had colleagues before. I never had sisters who sang until I connected with my community, sisters who sing in honor of God, people who are similar to me. These days, women are among my biggest source of inspiration.”

That year also was the first time that she led davening in a mixed minyan. “I stood next to the cantor for the first time, and I led Hallel,” she said. “And I cried.” That was at the Jewish Center in Princeton, a Conservative shul. The cantor was Joanna Dulkin, “who is such a close friend,” Ms. Carlebach said. “I felt so connected to what prayer should be. It feels like such a big responsibility.

“Every moment of prayer is relevant,” she continued. “There is only one Yom Kippur on the calendar, but we have Yom Kippur moments every day, moments of reflection, of revelation.” When you lead a community in prayer, “you never know what they need, but you do know that everyone has some need. I feel such a great sense of responsibility. Such a sense of great love.” But that doesn’t really differentiate singing as a shlichat tzibur from performing at a show, she said. “I have never done a show that is shallow.” She feels the need to connect and to help with transformation whenever she sings.

Part of transforming yourself is to hold onto such inspiration as life goes on. “You have these big moments, and you have to hold on,” she said.

So between 2014 and 2017, Ms. Carlebach “did more work for the liberal community that I had done before. But when the allegations came out in 2017, I really stopped my work.”

But when the pandemic began, Ms. Carlebach was able to work from home. “I started leading tefillah, and I was in the cantor online for a Reform shul in New York from home; I did Kol Nidrei. And then I was an artist in residence for Rabbi Maury Zimbalist at Congregation Beth Judea,” a Conservative shul in Long Grove, Illinois. “I would be online, and people would chat with me,” she said. “It was my first taste of connecting consistently with a community. Until then, I would go in and go out. But suddenly I fell in love with this, with the idea of being part of a community, and leading in that way. So I put it out there that maybe I wanted to do this.”

She auditioned for Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg of the Glen Rock Jewish Center.

“I am so inspired to work with her,” she said.

Rabbi Schlosberg said that because their beloved High Holy Day cantor, Rabbi Shaul Praver, will be leading services at Temple Emanu-El of Bayonne, they had to find someone new. “So we started a search and we had a lot of candidates send us resumes, and we narrowed it down four in-person interviews — and lo and behold one of them was Neshama,” Rabbi Schlosberg said. “She was a unique candidate, because she is not a trained chazzan, but she brings her soul and spirit to the prayers. It is just so palpable.

“I think services will be different,” she continued. “She is looking forward to bringing some of her father’s melodies to our shul — we use some of them already for Shabbes and holiday services. I am just looking forward to crafting the service with her, for traditional and soulful ways of connecting with the melodies.

“I anticipate that we might have more niggunim as opposed to chazzanut.”

Glen Rock is a Conservative shul, and Rabbi Schlosberg is a Conservative rabbi. “Neshama is not Conservative by background,” Rabbi Schlosberg said. “She is very passionate, and she is flexible and open to exploring the ways in which she wanted to express her Judaism. Her openness around that is really inspiring; she is a role model for women in particular, and for people who are moving from one movement to another.”

Neshama Carlebach lives in suburban New York. She’s married to Menachem Creditor, a Conservative rabbi who’s now the scholar in residence for UJA-Federation of New York. She has two sons from an earlier marriage, who now are 15 and 11, and “I received the gift of three stepchildren when I married Menachem,” she said; they’re 20, 16 and 14. Rabbi Creditor also plans to lead High Holy Day services from a pulpit this fall.

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