Shlomo Carlebach’s daughter: Still spreading his light
Pity the child of a famous person, like a singer or religious leader. She’ll walk forever in his shadow.
Except for the daughter of Shlomo Carlebach, the groundbreaking singer who pioneered a revival of Jewish music in the 20th century — and, some say, fostered the return of many young Jews to the fold.
“I’ve never felt in his shadow — I’ve felt in his light,” says Neshama Carlebach, who will sing for the first day of Hanukkah in Boca Raton, Fla. “It’s never a burden; it’s a great gift. He’s the voice in my head.”
Carlebach will present “A Celebration of Light and Miracles” at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, 9901 Donna Klein Blvd. She’ll offer the contemporary religious style of her late father as well as some of her own interpretations.
With her will be longtime friend Josh Nelson, a versatile Jewish rocker who also weaves folk, jazz and classical sounds into his work. They’ll perform both their own repertoires and each other’s.
Together, the two will cover much of the Jewish spectrum: Carlebach’s Orthodox background and secular outreach with Nelson’s Conservative / Reform upbringing and modern popular relationship.
The mix illustrates the goal of the concert, which will be their third together, she says in an interview from her home in New York.
“I feel like it’s a fusion of worlds — he’s from one side, I’m from the other,” Carlebach, 38, says. “We both believe the world has to come together, and that can come with music. You have to look outside your own world, and yet look within.”
That bridge-building was a lifelong theme also of her father, who died in 1994. Born into a Hasidic dynasty in Berlin, he came to America in 1939 and helped run his father’s synagogue in New York.
But he expanded far beyond the tight-knit Orthodox communities in the late 1960s after he moved to San Francisco and founded a mission to reach disaffected young Jewish hippies. Though he couldn’t read music, the “Rock Star Rabbi” wrote thousands of songs and even performed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead.
Some see in his exuberant concerts and worship gatherings the seeds of the so-called baal teshuvah movement, the phenomenon in the 1970s that saw thousands of young Jews turn more fervent and observant. His story, and 30 of his songs, are in the stage musical Soul Doctor, which his daughter helped create.
His daughter carries on his legacy, introducing audiences to Jewish leaders and teachings through her music. She often draws from pop, soft rock and even gospel, with a longtime musical partner, the Bronx-based Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir.
“Music wakes people up,” Neshama says. “Music is a place of access to help you begin to feel. In so many moments in life, we should be feeling, and we’re not. The healing starts when you acknowledge what is going on in your head and heart.
“Yes, [the concert] should be entertaining and sound great. But it should carry a deeper meaning. We are all sparks of godlness. And we can reflect that everywhere. If we’ll allow it.”
The Carlebach approach, both father and daughter, is part of the revival of Jewish contemporary music paralleling Christian contemporary music. Concerts and playlists often include names like Matisyahu, Ray Recht and Dr. Laz. Neshama Carlebach even regards Josh Nelson “the reiging king of the movement.”
Nelson, 35, adds his own head-spinning beliefs on the way music can foster an experience that is at once mystical and social.
“The very existence of music is a miracle,” he says in a separate interview. “You pull it out of the air. That we can experience it together happens on a level that we have only the surface of understanding.
“People feel like [music] is both an introspective and vibrant community experience, in one evening. That’s really what everybody wants. They want to sing with other people, and with that still, small voice.”
Carlebach comes to South Florida after a year that has taken her to venues like Los Angeles, New Jersey, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. Her Hanukkah concert will be one of her first after a hiatus of several weeks to deal with a divorce.
She says the divorce gives her a chance to practice what she preaches: learning to feel through music.
“We’re all tested in the world and given the opportunity to heal,” Carlebach says. “My blessing is that I have the opportunity to do it through music.
I’m praying that this new experience will make me compassionate in a new way.”
Tickets for the concert are $36 or $40 at the door for adults, $20 for students. For information, visit shaareikodesh.org or call 561-852-6555.
For more on Carlebach herself, visit her website.
James D. Davis