“Soul Doctor,” a play about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, ran briefly on Broadway, to mixed reviews, a decade ago. A performance of it was filmed five years ago in Jerusalem as part of the Israel at 70 festival, but it never was released.
On June 13, however, Fantom Events will show “Soul Doctor,” for one day only, at theaters throughout New Jersey and Rockland County.
The original Broadway run was produced at least in part in anticipation of an influx of Jewish audiences. That didn’t happen, perhaps because Carlebach was not as well known as the producers had hoped he was.
Shlomo Carlebach was born in Germany in 1925, the scion of generations of Orthodox rabbis. His family, which lived in Vienna, escaped the Holocaust by leaving Austria before Germany annexed the country in 1937 in what is known as the Anschluss. They eventually landed in New York, where Carlebach was ordained.
But Carlebach felt constrained by the traditional services at his father’s small Orthodox synagogue and felt that adding more contemporary-sounding music to the liturgy would encourage attendance.
He began adding upbeat, joyous melodies to the more traditional songs. His music eventually won acceptance from both the chasidic community and disaffected young Jews, some of whom joined him in a San Francisco commune.
Much of this is included in “Soul Doctor,” in some ways an inspirational story of the power of music. One of the film’s strengths is the way Carlebach (played by an excellent Josh Young) shows how conflicted he is as he emerges from the cocoon of strict Orthodoxy into a more permissive world.
On the one hand, his parents begged him to return to the fold. On the other, his musical neshuma, his soul, forced him forward. What makes his struggle interesting is that it is in many ways universal. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy’s rye bread — or to want to make a break from your past.
Carlebach stumbles into a nightclub and becomes entranced by a young piano player/singer, Nina Simone (played by the singer/songwriter Nya). Simon also is going through a rough patch. At the time — the late 1050s — few venues hired Black artists. Carlebach encouraged Simone to continue and she did the same for him, introducing Shlomo to gospel and soul music.
Both have expressive, stirring, inspiring voices that lift the film to new heights. When they first meet, Shlomo ’s religious restrictions won’t allow him to shake hands with her, though the two develop what appears to be a romantic relationship.
I spoke to Lisa Simone, Nina’s daughter, an executive producer of the film. She also delivers a brief intro to the film (which was not included with screeners sent out for review). I asked if her mom had mentioned Carlebach and what she knew about him?
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” she said. “Parents don’t tell us everything. And then to find out she recorded some of his songs on the ‘Forbidden Fruit’ album blew my mind.”
(Although they were recorded at the same time, Carlebach songs appeared on the extended CD version of the album released in 2005, not on the original vinyl.)
Their relationship was “definitely mutually beneficial,” Lisa Simone said. Nina Simone went on to become, well, Nina Simone. Shlomo Carlebach went on to become something of a Jewish rock star. His outreach, fueled by his soul-infested music, was an early effort in what became the baal teshuva movement, which encourages non-practicing Jews to return to the fold and re-embrace their heritage. He is considered the premier Jewish religious songwriter of the 20th century.
All this is more amazing considering that Carlebach spoke only Yiddish until he was in his early 20s and never learned how to read music.
But the extent of his accomplishments are not fully explored here, where his greatest achievement seems to be founding a San Francisco commune.
The film also leaves out a subplot of the play involving his wife, and a marriage that suffered from his absences while touring.
And it should be noted that both the play and the film ignore important negative revelations about his life. After his death, many reports of his sexual improprieties surfaced; his behavior, it turned out, was an open secret in many circles for many years. I know. “Soul Doctor” is a musical, not a documentary. Still, omitting this part of Carlebach’s story is the equivalent of doing a play about Harvey Weinstein concentrating only on his Academy Award-winning films.
The good news is that even this sanitized version of Carlebach’s life has merit. When they sing, Nya and Young send the film soaring and toes tapping. And at the very least it serves as an introduction into the life of one of the most significant influences of modern Jewish life.
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