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(01/26/2007) Send this articlePrint this Article Send this articleSend this article
Rock Star Rabbi
Ted Merwin - Special To The Jewish Week
The cast of “Shlomo, The House of Love and Prayer,” with his daughter Neshama, top right.  Motl Didner

They call him the greatest Jewish musician of the last half of the 20th century, the most inspirational figure in Jewish life and the savior of thousands of souls. Yet for all his tremendous energy and charisma, the chasidic rabbi and singer Shlomo Carlebach was also scorned by many in the Jewish establishment, seized by self-doubt, and so focused on helping others that he seems to have unhealthily repressed his own needs and desires.

When “Shlomo, The House of Love and Prayer” begins its long-awaited first workshop performances this weekend at the JCC in Manhattan, audiences will be able to judge Rabbi Carlebach’s remarkable and controversial legacy. Written and directed by Daniel Schechter and David Wise, “Shlomo” stars the singer’s elder daughter, Neshama Carlebach, who has become a major singing star in her own right in the dozen years since her father’s death, with six albums of Jewish music to date.

As Sandee Brawarsky reported in these pages in 2005, the two-hour show follows Rabbi Carlebach from his childhood in prewar Berlin through his family’s escape to New York, where his father, Rabbi Naftali Carlebach took over the small synagogue on West 79th Street that Shlomo and his brother, Eli Chaim, later served.

The 18-member cast includes three actors playing Rabbi Carlebach at different ages — Yitzhak Berkman, Elliot Kranzler (known as “Elli”) and Dmitri Friedenberg. (Jason Alexander, whom the producers approached to play Shlomo, turned down the role.) Also featured in the cast is Grammy-nominated jazz singer Carla Cook.

“Someone once told me that my father was blind in that he only saw good in people,” Neshama told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “I responded that my father sifted through everything to find that one piece of good.” Yet she also said that Orthodox rabbinical authorities “spit at him, literally and figuratively” for his maverick approach to kiruv [outreach], which offered unconditional love and acceptance to everyone and which elevated women’s participation in Orthodox Judaism.

Much of the show, which is a mix of concert and play, is set in the eponymous house that Rabbi Carlebach founded in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in the 1960s, in which he supported Jewish hippies, drug addicts and runaways and allowed them to experiment with drugs, sex, meditation, yoga and Eastern religions while he brought them back to an awareness of their Jewish roots.

Wise, who just returned from producing a world tour of “Rent,” said that his favorite moment in the show comes at the beginning of Act 2, when Rabbi Carlebach, having been “exiled” by the Lubavitch, is wandering through America feeling forlorn. He hears the voice of Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav talking about living in the forest and gathering people in the city until he collected the whole nation. The scene ends with the other characters singing “Esa Einai,” (I Will Lift Up My Eyes) in unison as they arrive at the Berkeley Folk Festival in the late 1960s.

According to Wise, Rabbi Carlebach was “a phoenix that helped the Jewish nation rise from the ashes of the Holocaust.” He said that the show does not seek to portray Rabbi Carlebach as a heroic figure, but rather to ask how he managed to be a “rabbi and a rock star at the same time, to have a broken heart and yet heal so many hearts, and to live with so much irony, inconsistency and contradiction.”

Among Rabbi Carlebach’s “inconsistency,” some have charged in recent years, was a pattern of sexual harassment of female followers. But Wise responds that Rabbi Carlebach simply “had no boundaries” and that this enabled him to give so freely of his own material, emotional and spiritual resources. Wise compared Rabbi Carlebach to Gospel Highway kings like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding — performers who Wise said greatly influenced Rabbi Carlebach —in his attainment of a celebrity status that was exhilarating and seductive for men and women alike, and that meant that there was simply “a different reality when people were around him.”

In the end, Neshama pointed out, her father tried to help ordinary people to reach their own potential. “He wanted people to find out how they could make their own mark on the world.” She expressed her hope that “people will walk away seeing a whole new side to my father and thinking that maybe their heart can be as big as his was.” n

“Shlomo, The House of Love and Prayer,” will be performed at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street. Performances are this Sunday, Jan. 28 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Tuesday, Jan. 30 at 8 p.m. For tickets, $36-$72, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200.


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