While I enjoyed Juda Engelmayer’s January 9 essay on the Shlomo Carlebach musical newly staged off-Broadway at the Actor’s Temple Theater (“Shlomo Carlebach musical has the soul to heal frayed race relations”), I would like to correct a few serious errors that he makes. I speak as a devoted follower of Reb Shlomo for 23 years and an active member of the Carlebach Shul.
Mr. Engelmayer confuses artistic license with historical fact. The Carlebach musical uses Nina Simone as an artistic device to promote Shlomo’s (and yes, he was known to everyone as, simply, “Shlomo,” not “Reb Shlomo,” by his choice) love of all humankind. Although she was an acquaintance, she was not a significant influence on his musical development, nor did he ever sit at her feet, “learning how to send spirits soaring higher and higher toward God and a better world.” According to the late Itzhik Aisenstadt, the person who was most knowledgeable about Shlomo’s music, the principal source of his musical inspiration came from the Modzhitzer chasidim. Itzik told me that Shlomo spent a summer in the late 1940s taking long walks with the Modzhitzer rebbe. The Modzhitzer chasidim are considered by many to have the strongest musical tradition among all chasidic groups. Shlomo also hung out with musicians, including black jazz musicians, heard gospel music, and was undoubtedly influenced by them. But his major musical influence from the beginning and throughout his career always was in the deep Jewish roots of chasidic music. Further, Nina Simone had nothing whatsoever to do with Shlomo’s playing at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1966 and the subsequent formation of the House of Love and Prayer in Haight-Ashbury. In short, Shlomo’s ability to send spirits soaring came out of his own deep Jewish soul and the chasidic musical influences around him; that it bridged white and black was due to his own deep love of God and all His creations.
Further, Reb Shlomo (as he is now known to his followers, to show respect) did not come out of a closed-off chasidic community. His family were prominent non-chasidic Ashkenazi rabbis for many generations. Reb Shlomo, however, was attracted to chasidism. After the death of the Modzhitzer rebbe, Reb Shlomo spent much time learning with the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, before he became the rebbe. Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman Schachter became the first shaliachs sent out by Chabad Lubavitch to reach out to all the lost Jewish souls. As everyone knows, Chabad is definitely not a “closed-off chasidic community,” as Mr. Engelmayer describes it.
As a more minor correction, non-chasidic Orthodox synagogues have always had communal singing in their religious services; singing was not frowned upon, rather, it was not engaged in to the extent of chasidic communities. Certainly we remember Adon Olam, Aleynu, and many other prayers being sung in Ashkenazi synagogues before Reb Shlomo’s advent. And Sephardic communities have always had a rich tradition of singing and chanting during prayer services.
Nonetheless, as Mr. Engelmayer writes, the universal message of “Soul Doctor” is a message for all times and for this time.