STAMFORD, Connecticut — Neshama Carlebach sits in her car in a deli parking lot, listening to her new song “Believe.” She beams when the words, “I close my eyes so I can see all that can be / We will rise, I do believe,” pipe through the speaker — but not for the reasons one might think.
The song shares the name of her forthcoming album, which drops on her website on March 29. It features 12 all-original songs performed by her band, along with a new gospel choir led by Pastor Milton Vann. Yet, the smile that lights up Carlebach’s face isn’t born of knowing her new album “Believe” will soon be released into the world (although Carlebach is proud). Rather, it is because she has found tranquility on the other side of turmoil.
“It’s a time of joy that has come from a time of insane sorrow and fear and loss and transformation,” says Carlebach, 44, now back inside the deli sipping a steaming cup of herbal tea. “My yoga instructor says, ‘Don’t worry about falling. It is in the falling that you learn to stand up.’”
For Carlebach, one of today’s best-selling Jewish artists worldwide, standing up means talking openly, and at times emotionally, about her second marriage, living in a blended family, and the way the #MeToo movement impacted her life and work. This interview marked the first time the singer spoke with the press about the allegations of sexual misconduct against her father, the legendary Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Known as the “Singing Rabbi,” Shlomo Carlebach rose to fame as a teacher, singer and composer of folk-inspired Jewish liturgical music in the 1960s. Performing worldwide, he became one of the generation’s most influential Jewish musicians. Then the allegations surfaced. Women accused him of making unwanted sexual advances.
The first comprehensive story of Sholomo Carlebach’s alleged sexual misconduct was first reported in a 1998 Lillith magazine article. In it several women who alleged Carlebach sexually harassed them in the 1970s spoke out. These women had interacted with him in different places, from summer camps to synagogue concerts. After being confronted about the advances, he reportedly told one of the women, “Oy, this needs such a fixing.”
Then, in 1994 he died of a heart attack. Thirty-one days later a bereft Neshama hit the road touring. She was 20. She remained on the road until 2012 when she realized she needed a break. She wanted to focus on her young sons and take time to grieve her father.
By the time Carlebach stepped back into the spotlight in 2016 she had shed her anxiety and exhaustion. She had also shed her identification as an Orthodox Jew, having found a sense of community and family within the Reform movement. She had created and performed in the musical “Soul Doctor,” which ran on Broadway, and in November 2016 was inducted into the Brooklyn Hall of Fame, where she received a Certificate of Congressional Recognition for her work.
She’d only just got her groove back when the Harvey Weinstein affair ignited the #MeToo movement. Soon after, the controversy surrounding Shlomo Carlebach re-surfaced. It came just as Neshama was going through a divorce.
A slight hitch creeps into her voice as she recounts this period of her life. The alleged incidents happened before she was born and had nothing to do with her, she says. And yet, her identity was intertwined with her father’s. She, who had begun singing at age five, sang his music. She performed with him.
At the time, many in the Orthodox community had rallied around Shlomo Carlebach, she says. By contrast, many in the Reform movement, the one she sought refuge in after leaving Orthodoxy, shunned her. Many synagogues banned her father’s music and told her she was no longer welcome, that her name was a trigger.
“I felt like that scene in Star Wars when the trash compactor starts squeezing and there was nowhere to go. I was demolished when this happened, for something I never did. That was the nuclear explosion I needed to find my own voice,” she says.
And so Neshama Carlebach spoke out.
Last January she wrote a blog for The Times of Israel entitled, “My sisters, I hear you.” She wrote about the difficulty she had in reconciling the father she knew with the man he was.
“I accept the fullness of who may father was, flaws and all. I am angry with him… Still, our tradition teaches us that silence is consent, and I cannot remain silent in the face of so much pain,” she wrote.
She wrote about being molested by a family friend who was a rabbi when she was nine. She wrote about wanting to listen, needing to listen. She wrote about being the target of aggression that was not hers to receive. She wrote about the need to have public conversations about the place of women in Judaism and in today’s world.
“I am so grateful for this #MeToo movement. No human being should be hurt period. People need to believe survivors and hear people’s pain. The women who have come forward – I believe them. It took me a long time to get there. I was a woman who was abused and not believed,” she says.
Carlebach says it took her a long time to “get there” because she couldn’t reconcile the man she knew as her father with the man these women described. It remains something she’s still trying to square. The pain was further compounded since her father will never be able to answer her questions, she says.
One year later, Carlebach’s anger and hurt has mellowed. In its place lives joy and grace.
Six months ago she married Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a social justice activist and head of Rabbis Against Gun Violence. The two met 10 years ago when Carlebach headlined an event at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkley, California. The two became fast, but long distance, friends, speaking frequently on the telephone. She went through a divorce; he went through a divorce. She sought his counsel on various issues, including on how to bless participants in the 2017 Climate Change march in New York City.
“In moments of challenge, Menachem has always been there to guide and inspire me through that process. We both deeply believe that music has the power to bring people of all backgrounds together,” she said.
Then came the call that changed everything. Over the phone Creditor told her he had feelings for her.
“I dropped the phone. I was overwhelmed,” she said.
Carlebach flew to San Francisco. When they met on Pier 45 it was the first time they’d seen each other in eight years. Today, together the couple is raising their children. Carlebach has two sons, aged 8 and 12, and Creditor has three children, aged 11, 13 and 16.
Outside of her family, Carlebach leans on her producer Beth Styles, with whom she collaborated on the album, and her business partner Jackie Tepper.
Beyond the music, the women worked together on the design for the album cover as well as a jewelry line, which will incorporate the word “believe.” It will be available online and at future Carlebach shows.
The word “Believe” was reproduced from Carlebach’s own handwriting. That detail represents a special point of pride for the singer, who recalled an elementary school teacher telling her art was not her forte.
Carlebach will pre-release two songs in advance along with a pre-sale of the CD on her website. It will also be available on iTunes, CDBaby, Spotify, YouTube and Amazon.
Vann, who leads the gospel choir featured in “Believe,” began working with Carlebach 13 years ago as a background singer. They traveled the country together, singing alongside one another in countless venues, including synagogues.
Carlebach has performed at major Jewish music festivals in the US and around the world, including an interfaith peace summit in Mt. Fuji, Japan, and at the gates of Auschwitz on Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2013.
In “Believe,” Vann said Carlebach sends a message for people to have and keep faith.
“I believe this body of music reflects and is even the result of what Neshama presents musically: a new birth,” said Vann. “Through this album, Neshama is birthing a new sound that none of us knew was there. Every song on ‘Believe’ is poignant musically and lyrically. She is tapping into a different, soulful, exuberant sound.”
Technically Carlebach began working on “Believe” last June. But in so many ways, she’s been working toward this album her entire life, she says.
“I have come through some things that are very painful. The message in this record is find your space of believing and hold it. It sounds trite, but it is my absolute truth,” she said.