Her own voice

Her own voice

Neshama Carlebach talks about her father, her faith, her music, and kol isha

Josh Nelson and Neshama Carlebach are joining their musical legacies.

To say that Neshama Carlebach was born into a family that surrounded her with music is to understate blandly and grandly and ludicrously.

She was born into a family that understood music to be, as she puts it, “the heartbeat, the pulse, the life-saving force. It helps connect you to the people beside you, to yourself, and to God. It allows you to look at yourself, and to think about why you’re here.

“Music is the voice of the soul.”

Her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was a man of intense charisma, who used the music he created and played and sang to mesmerizing effect, at times bringing people back to the Judaism they had never known before they left it. It is not an overstatement to say that his music has reinvigorated religious services across the religious spectrum; much of the joyous life that exists in some parts of the liberal world can be traced back to him. His songs and niggunim are so well known that many of us think they must be folk melodies with age-old roots, not 20th-century composed works.

The Carlebach family was Orthodox, part of a proud rabbinic dynasty, and Reb Shlomo, as he was called, studied in Lakewood, where he showed a great aptitude for both learning and leadership. But he chose a more inclusive Orthodox life and made a point of reaching out to all Jews; he was not at all didactic or proscriptive. In fact, his daughter said, “He never told anyone what to do, sometimes to his own detriment. He would never say ‘you must do this.’ He would allow people to find their own ways, go on their own journeys, and once they got there you would be able to find something to connect to, something to make you cry, something to transport you.”

Neshama often would sing with him, not only privately but also in public performances.

That sometimes caused problems, but she did not know how serious those problems were then.

“My father was the ultimate umbrella,” she said. “He was so good at being the umbrella that I never even knew it was raining.”

That acid rain was the anger that parts of their own community aimed at the Carlebachs for ignoring the dictum of kol isha. (The phrase “kol isha” literally means “a woman’s voice”; it is shorthand for the idea that a woman must not sing if a man is in earshot, lest he be unable to control his base instincts.)

Reb Shlomo would deal with the problem, his daughter recalled, but warned his audiences that it was time for them to make a choice. “My father would bring me on stage, and say that anyone who has a problem with kol isha should leave for five minutes,” Neshama said. “He said: ‘This is my daughter – she is my joy – and she will sing with me.'” Some men would leave, she reported; they’d hang around the door, and then come back.

His strategy worked, father and daughter continued to sing together.

“And then he died, and it was a monsoon.”

In 1994, Shlomo Carlebach died, at 69. His daughter was devastated, but she decided, once the mourning period was over, to go on with their shows. The simmering issue of kol isha came to a boil immediately.

“I was attacked on all fronts,” she said. “People told me that if I made this choice, I would cause his soul to suffer. That he would roll over in his grave.

“I was 20 years old, in deep pain, mourning him.

“The only way I was able to preserve myself was because I knew what my father wanted for me, and then I found the place inside myself to bring myself comfort and healing.”

For years, Neshama Carlebach worked ceaselessly. She married and had two children, who are now 7 and 3. “I sang through morning sickness,” she said. “I sang through pregnancy. I was 9 months and 2 weeks pregnant at my last show, and then I went back to work immediately after my son was born.”

But she never took time off from work until last year, when everything fell apart. “I went through a big life change,” she said. “I got divorced – I decided it, it was my choice, but I threw a nuclear bomb on my whole existence.”

She took a full year off to rediscover herself. Her method was drastic – she “banished music. I didn’t listen to any music. I wasn’t able to feel, and music brings us to feeling and to emotion. I didn’t sing. I couldn’t even remember any songs, except one.

“It made going back to music much more powerful.”

She learned many lessons from that year. One is about gratitude. “There are days when you are with your family, and you just love them so much, and days when you are with them but you are not aware of the gift,” she said. “I am so filled with gratitude now, so deeply aware of the ones I love.”

Another is about honesty, about speaking the truth.

She is no longer willing to be quiet about kol isha.

“I think it’s bogus,” she said. “It is irrelevant, it is archaic, it is a control tactic. It is cruel.

“It is abuse.

“Until now, I have been trying to sugarcoat what I think about it.” She is longer willing to do that. Now she feels compelled to speak her truth.

She knows, she said, “that there are some women who don’t mind not singing. There are Orthodox women who have careers, who don’t sing and are happy, but there are too many women who feel that they have no voice.

“The whole idea is that men can’t hear women sing because it might drive them to do something bad – I am fed up with that. It is not on me not to sing, it is on you to grow up and take responsibility for yourself.”

In January, Neshama Carlebach wrote a blog post describing how comfortable she now feels with Reform Judaism. “I have been inspired by its love and inclusivity,” she said. “I am very moved to know that it exists in a Jewish framework, and to see that there is a Jewish world like that.”

The response from the Orthodox world was swift and sharp. “There are a lot of angry people,” she said; she pointed out, too, that although she gets many letters from people announcing that they will not listen to her music, she has sold more than a million copies of her CDs, so certainly someone is buying them. “When you are in the public eye, people tend to offer you more opinions than they need to,” she said.

“Why are they so angry?” she asked. “I think that maybe it is time for them to be a little introspective. Could it be that I am speaking the truth, and they are not ready to hear it?

“I am not trying to argue. My statement came from love and faith and inspiration. It is coming from a very positive place.”

She is not yet sure where she will land religiously – much as she loves the Reform movement, its services do not open her heart – because “we need an open and strong relationship to God, and that includes ritual,” she said. “Ritual is the way that you get there.”

Newly back at work, newly re-engaged with music, Neshama Carlebach said that “my music is different now.

“It’s more vulnerable and more real. I’m not singing what people want to hear, but what I want to express. And my voice is different, too. I think I’m singing better and more truthfully, and that my new record is the best thing I ever did.” (That’s the newly released “Soul Daughter,” based on the Broadway musical about her father, “Soul Doctor,” which she co-wrote.)

She now works with a new band, and with Josh Nelson, the well-known Jewish musician who has championed the work of Debbie Friedman. Ms. Friedman died last year, leaving her mother, who is over 90, and her sister, in her 70s and ailing. She had supported them; Ms. Carlebach and Mr. Nelson hope to fill some of the financial void left by her death through the proceeds of their work.

Their collaboration, though, has an even deeper meaning.

In many ways, Josh Nelson is Debbie Friedman’s heir, and certainly Neshama Carlebach is her father’s. It is clear, Neshama said, that her father was influenced by Debbie Friedman, and that Debbie Friedman similarly took much from her father. So when their inheritors join forces, “it is a reunification of the Jewish people,” she said.

“We are all trying to give something powerful to the world,” she said. “We all have our own voice to give.”

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