Teacher, entertainer and singer Neshama Carlebach, long considered a powerful female voice in the Jewish music world, was involuntarily caught in the riptide when her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was posthumously accused of sexual misconduct during the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017. The fallout caused many of her concerts to be canceled, and she feared for her career.
It wasn’t the first time the allegations had been leveled against Shlomo Carlebach, an icon whose music was for decades sung in synagogues of all denominations worldwide, and whose musical and spiritual influence brought many closer to their Jewish roots, but social conditions gave the accusations – some going back to the 1970s – additional urgency and gravity.
In early 2018, Carlebach penned an open letter to Jewish women titled “My Sisters, I Hear You,” validating the voices who spoke out against her father, while also laying bare the many mixed feelings she had as Shlomo Carlebach’s daughter. She refused to see her father only as the sum of his missteps and would forever love him, she said, even as she revealed that she herself had been the victim of sexual assault at the age of 9.
This week, after publishing another revealing article, Carlebach sat down with Times of Israel Opinion and Blogs Editor Miriam Herschlag for the new Behind the Headlines online video series to discuss how she has processed the accusations against her father since they first surfaced in the late 1990s, how she sees her father’s legacy, her belief in the human capacity for change, and what’s next in her career. Before signing off, Carlebach also performed an original song, “Don’t Let Me Go,” which she composed in 2018.
Carlebach opened up about her surprise at learning about the claims against Shlomo Carlebach for the first time in an article published several years after his death. He was the person she was closest to in her life, she said, and not only had she never seen any of the behaviors described, but she’d also never heard of them from family, friends, or community.
“I’ll be very honest about this — I was told the women were liars, they were attention seekers, they were publicity seekers, and there was no reason for any of us to hear them, because they were lying,” Carlebach said of her close circle’s reaction to the claims. “At the time, I was an Orthodox woman and I too seemed, when I told my truth, like a liar. And I bought it. I held it. I didn’t hear myself and I didn’t hear women.”
Carlebach said that many of the changes she went through in the following years will be detailed in a memoir she is currently writing, and mentioned her departure from identifying as Orthodox as a “very large shift.”
“I began to question everything,” she said. “And the first thing that I realized was that I am not a liar. And then I became really aware of my own pain.”
The change in perspective also allowed Carlebach to begin to associate and identify with fellow women for the first time in her life, she said, “women who also sang, who also served the Divine in the way that I did, and sort of the coming together of all of those things for me made me see. It allowed me to see.”
“When the accusations resurfaced against my father, I saw it, I felt it, I experienced it in a different way completely,” Carlebach said. “And it didn’t matter almost that my father was not alive, it didn’t matter what I saw. What I said out loud and what I will continue to hold is: I am hearing, I am seeing, that women in particular – men as well, and children – there is too much pain in this world and we will not tolerate it, period.”
But Carlebach also continues to see her father as a multifaceted – if flawed – human being. “We are bigger than our greatest mistakes and we are less than our greatest accomplishments,” she said. “The best parts of his legacy I wanted to hold. And the rest of it – I had to forgive him and love him and let him die.”
Carlebach’s musical career has received a shot in the arm following its downturn, which included many cancellations from people who closely associated her with her father. Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, Carlebach said, she has given over 90 virtual performances and has sung her father’s music at the request of listeners.
“People want to hear my father’s music,” she said. “They’re crying for it, they’re crying about it. They’re conflicted, some of them.
“Some of them are saying ‘how do we reconcile, help us to reconcile that the music.’ It’s what they sing, God forbid, you know – someone called, their elderly parent was dying of the virus, and they couldn’t go. And so the nurses called, and they’re singing my father’s music. That’s what they’re singing in that terrible horrific moment, they are singing. And it’s their peace. It’s the communication, it’s the bridge.”
Check out previous Behind the Headlines interviews
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