Shlomo Carlebach musical has the soul to heal frayed race relations

Click photo to download. Caption: The off-Broadway musical play "Soul Doctor." Credit: Carol Rosegg.

By Juda Engelmayer/JNS.org

The cracks that had been simply painted over for so long began to show in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, but in truth they had begun to open wide much earlier—on Saturday, July 13, 2013. That is when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman of culpability for the death of a 17-year-old black man, Trayvon Martin. The cracks receded from view over time, as other news obscured them.

Then came the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, when a young white Missouri police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed another black teenager, 18-year-old Michael Brown. In November, a grand jury declined to indict Wilson for the teenager’s death. Parts of Missouri went up in flames as frustrated and angry men, women, and teenagers took to the streets to express their outrage and their disbelief. The Grand Jury’s decision confirmed for them that the justice system in America continues to fail black communities, and that racism still motivates many in white America today. 

As the Grand Jury verdict in the Brown case began to fade from public view, another case reared its head—this time in Staten Island, N.Y., where a grand jury on Dec. 3 refused to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of 43-year-old Eric Garner on July 17, 2014, even though Garner’s death-by-chokehold was caught on a video. His death occurred as police attempted to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes.

What made the Garner case stand out was the video, which had gone viral during the summer and was seen around the world by millions of people. Almost immediately after the announcement that the Grand Jury would not indict Pantaleo, protests broke out all across the nation. These protests continue. In one recent incident, several New York City police officers were beaten during a protest on the Brooklyn Bridge.  

New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, only added to the tensions when he told a press conference that he and his wife told his own biracial son to fear the police.

Then came Saturday, Dec. 20, when two police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were assassinated while sitting in their patrol car by a man who claimed to be seeking revenge for Garner. 

The black-white divide now looms larger across America than any time since the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, despite the fact that a black has been elected to two terms as president of the U.S., a feat no other minority can yet claim.

But despite the rhetoric and bad-to-worse news, there are glimmers of hope—on an off-Broadway stage, no less. The new version of the musical play “Soul Doctor” delivers an uplifting message from a time when the success of the Civil Rights movement was still uncertain.

The “Soul Doctor” referenced in the title is the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a religious Jewish man who believed that he could inspire people of all faiths and no faith to learn to love each other through his music. He had seen so much hate in his youth, when he and his family were forced to flee Austria and Adolf Hitler’s madness. After his family came to America, Carlebach discovered that he had a talent for making people happy though music.

“Reb Shlomo,” as he is affectionately known to his legions of followers, came out of a closed-off Hasidic community. He began to seek out a more soulful, spiritual approach to Jewish music. That brought him to the Jazz legend Nina Simone. Decades before Carlebach was born, the playwright Samson Raphaelson made the connection between Jewish music and jazz in his short story, “Day of Atonement,” which he then adapted into the play “The Jazz Singer.” Soul Doctor solidifies that connection. It is the story of the friendship between Carlebach and Simone, and how her music and advice helped him bridge the wide gap between the insular world from which he came and the one in which he was now emerging. 

Even as he maintained his Orthodox Jewish beliefs and Hasidic bent, Carlebach added fun to prayer and a new spirit to the Jewish souls that he touched throughout his life. He also broke down a centuries-old barrier that existed in non-Hasidic Orthodox communities, which previously frowned upon singing during prayer services. Today, there is hardly any synagogue—in any of Judaism’s streams—that does not include Carlebach’s melodies and the melodies of those who followed in his footsteps.

Carlebach’s influence also spread to non-Jews. Simone’s influence and encouragement led him to Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco’s “hippy haven” in the mid-20th Century, where he brought his music as well as his message of peace and love to his “House of Love and Prayer.” 

The influence of Simone and her soulful jazz run deep in Carlebach’s music. Such hugely popular songs such as Ki Va Moed (The Time has Come) or Esa Einai (I Lift Up My Eyes) were inspired by melodies that originated as classical music entwined with African and slave folk culture, with West African influences.

Here was a Hasidic man in the 1960s, who had hardly spoken a word in English until he was 25 years old, who in his youth was deemed by great rabbis of the day to be destined for greatness as a Torah scholar, sitting at the feet of a black female jazz singer and learning how to send spirits soaring higher and higher towards God and a better world. And this was a time when fire hoses and police batons were standard tools for maintaining the divide between whites and blacks. 

If that gap could be bridged then—and it was a much wider gap than anyone outside the Hasidic world could ever imagine—then the gap that is ever-widening today also can be bridged. 

Juda Engelmayer

Carlebach saw no gaps. All people, whoever they are, whatever they believe, whatever their race or ethnicity or gender, are children of the same God and created in His image. “Soul Doctor” makes one realize that we are all more connected than some would have us believe, and that we can be—and have been—inspired by the very people around us whom some would have us fear. 

The universal message of “Soul Doctor” is a message for all times, but it is particularly a message for this time. Ki Va Moed: the time is now, for the cracks to mended. Shlomo Carlebach knew this then, and we can still learn from him now.

Juda Engelmayer is a senior vice president and group director at 5W Public Relations, one of the largest public relations firms in the country.

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Posted on January 6, 2015 and filed under Arts, Opinion, U.S..