NEW YORK – In 1994, when Neshama Carlebach, then a teenager, joined her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on stage they broke the taboo of kol isha, the Orthodox prohibition of women singing before men. It was also the first and last time she’d appear with her father, otherwise known as the Singing Rabbi. A few months later he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Today Carlebach, 41, in her own right a star in Jewish entertainment, continues to break barriers while both carrying on her father’s legacy and charting her own unique path. Whether it’s performing with an African-American Baptist church choir or singing before the People’s Climate Change March in 2013, Carlebach still sees music as a way to give voice to the voiceless.
“I believe we can have a wonderful world. I believe we can heal through music. That’s the voice I want to sing to,” Carlebach said, sitting inside New York’s jewel-like Café Lalo on a raw February day.
Music — and the lack of it — has healed Carlebach, and allowed her to realize that sometimes the best way to hold on to someone is to let them go.
Recently Carlebach and her family decided to put on the auction block one of her father’s steel string acoustic guitars together with 25 other pieces of Judaica and other objects owned and used by Shlomo Carlebach including his Kiddush cup, piano, and tefillan.
Although Shlomo was known for playing a nylon string guitar, he did play steel string. This particular guitar, made by Conrad, has an estimated value between $15,000 and $20,000. It has some broken some strings, was never repaired, and still has travel tags on it, said Jonathan Greenstein, president of Greenstein, Inc. The family and Greenstein have yet to set a final date for the auction.
It’s not the first one of Carlebach’s guitars to go on auction. Several months ago one of his guitars sold for $11,000. Rabbi Yehoshua Book of Jerusalem put it on auction without the family’s knowledge.
Although Carlebach didn’t sanction that sale, it made her realize many people are still passionate about her father, and what he represented. But deciding to hold an auction of her father’s possessions wasn’t easy.
“I’m so driven and inspired to bring him to the world. I feel at times like I’m his arms and legs, his mouth and eyes,” Carlebach said over coffee. “He wanted to hold and hug and love every human being on the planet. So I see the auction as a way for him to sustain his own work. When I hear about Bono’s work in the world, I want my father’s legacy to be able to do that.”
Therefore the proceeds from the auction will fund the Shlomo Carlebach Foundation. In turn it is Carlebach’s hope to see the foundation support education, artists, and various charities.
As a friend of the Carlebach family for many years, Greenstein said, “her father is the reason I’m observant today. Shlomo was timeless. His music and teaching permeates all ages. There’s not a Jewish high school that doesn’t sing his songs. There’s not a Jewish wedding that doesn’t play them.”
Because of that friendship, and the esteem in which he holds Carlebach, Greenstein isn’t taking a commission on the sale. Instead he will give the foundation the full value of whatever it receives for each item when the hammer comes down.
Just a few yeas ago, a different kind of hammer came down on Neshama.
‘Everything we were working for and towards — I could taste. And then I walked away from it’
“In 2011 we were a six-time entrant at the Grammy Awards; not nominations, but entrants. We were working with a gospel choir. Everything we were working for and towards — I could taste,” she said. “And then I walked away from it. I was dying inside. I had mourned for my father in public, but never in private.”
She had worked non-stop since her father’s death, aside from the traditional 30 days of mourning. She didn’t take a honeymoon when she married. She performed nine months pregnant and she performed while nursing her newborn son, albeit using a strategically placed blanket. She performed while her first marriage crumbled in 2012 and she performed while going through the divorce.
Finally she hit a wall and realized she needed to retreat and regroup.
“I realized I wasn’t making choices. I had traveled from one end of the earth to the other. was singing for him [my father] I was singing for my family, but I wasn’t singing for me,” she said.
For one year Carlebach didn’t sing.
Now she’s back, but determined to avoid the punishing schedule that once governed her life. Instead she’s making deliberate choices about where and when she’ll perform. She said one of her most joyous experiences happened last month at Anshe Emet Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, NJ when her two sons – Rafi, 9 and Micah, 5 took the stage alongside her and her partner Josh Nelson, and his two sons.
Though her romance with Nelson is still new, their musical collaboration dates back years. He worked with her on her first album, and produced “Soul Daughter.” Today the couple lives together in Brooklyn with the four boys.
Part of making “deliberate choices” means no longer performing in the mechitza setting, she said. It’s a decision Carlebach didn’t come by lightly.
For years Carlebach was introduced to Orthodox audiences with qualifiers such as “Too bad she wasn’t born a man,” or, “Imagine if Shlomo had had a son, the Carlebach line wouldn’t have ended.” “It was like saying ‘Too bad she doesn’t have legs, imagine how far she could walk?’ A few years ago I would apologize for my existence. Not anymore,” Carlebach said.
In 2013, Carlebach and Nelson performed at the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism. While there, Carlebach, who was raised Orthodox, decided to very publicly embrace the spirit and tenets of Reform Judaism, a movement she sees as the voice of change.
‘He believed in the intrinsic good in humanity and would never have judged someone for the choices they made’
But for Carlebach this “voice of change” is a natural extension of her father’s teachings.
“He had no tolerance for anger or pain, he believed in the intrinsic good in humanity and would never have judged someone for the choices they made,” she said.
Carlebach’s fans will look forward to her newest album, and ninth recording. “Soul Daughter” features performances by the original Broadway cast of “Soul Doctor,” the musical she helped create about her father’s life. This new album certainly explores and celebrates the music of her father, but it also is a re-introduction of a singer who has come into her own.
“He wanted originality. He wanted strength. I never wanted to replace him, I never wanted to be him,” she said. “Some people will say, ‘What’s it like to be in his shadow?’ I’m not in his shadow. I’m in his light.”