Even people who were close to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach don’t know about the singing rabbi’s relationship with Gospel singer Nina Simone. To be sure, it was not a relationship that could have been predicted – she a black girl from North Carolina trying to build a career in the big city; he a German Jew who had narrowly escaped the fires of World War II, arriving in New York as a 13-year-old in 1938.
Despite the differences in their backgrounds, however, there was much to bring them together: Both were children of clergy people; both were emerging as central figures in the cultural revivals of their respective communities – Simone as part of the civil rights movement, Carlebach as a leader in a Jewish world that was trying to define itself on a new continent, at a time of intense social upheaval, and less than two decades after Auschwitz.
After meeting at a jazz bar in Greenwich Village in 1956, the friendship between the two was immediate, and mutual: He taught her songs in Hebrew, which she eventually recorded; she listened to his stories about Nazi atrocities in the early years of the Third Reich and helped Carlebach sharpen his vision for injecting passion and happiness into Judaism. Breaking with the Orthodox tradition he had grown up with, Carlebach accompanied Simone to Gospel churches in Harlem and the Bronx, coming away deeply impacted by the music and the experience.
The relationship is a central theme in Soul Doctor, a 2008 musical ostensibly about Carlebach’s life, but which on a deeper level explores the current state of Jews, and of Judaism. Daniel Wise, the playwright, says he knew Carlebach well as a child and teenager – his mother was close to the rabbi, though the nature of that relationship isn’t clear from Wise’s description – but also said that it took him more than a decade after Carlebach’s death in 1994 to fully understand the man and his impact.
“Shlomo was a ‘friend’ to a million people, but there were only one or two people who really could be considered friends. When I was commissioned to do the show, I revisited his whole story and came to understand that his entire life was about understanding and crafting Jewish identity in the aftermath of the Holocaust,” Wise told TPS by phone.
The result of that contrast – the “hippie’s rabbi” with legions of devotees around the world who preached the Torah at The House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco during the height of the 1960’s social upheaval, who at the same time was a deeply solitary figure who had few close relationships and who was largely unsuccessful maintaining family life – left a lasting effect on the Jewish world that continues to ring.
“Nina understood what he was trying to accomplish because they were alike in many ways. Neither one really considered themselves ‘singers,’ but both had a great deal of depth that they were trying to convey. He had a deep love for both the Jewish past and Jewish tradition, but also for the modern world and contemporary society. She really ‘got’ him and convinced him that allowing himself to be influenced by the black experience would serve as a good model for his goal of rehabilitating the Jewish people. He continued visiting Gospel churches until the day he died,” Wise said.
Wise said it was not clear whether Carlebach and Simone were involved sexually – there are hints, he said, but nothing concrete. But he said the point is irrelevant to the musical and stands only to divert attention from what Wise said should be the essential core of Carlebach’s memory.
“Shlomo sang to every kind of group imaginable,” Wise said. “He reinvented himself and the Jewish experience because he cared so, so much about people. I’m not blind to his darker sides, but I that generous essence is what I think the show conveys.”
By: Andrew Friedman