Photo Credit: archive
Shlomo Carlebach

Another couple of caveats: The play has Shlomo’s very conservative and traditional father marching in Selma for civil rights with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., although it appears this never actually happened. The play also makes much of Carlebach’s relationship with African-American singer Nina Simone. In doing so, the play may give viewers the impression that Carlebach’s music is based to a great extent on folk, jazz, and gospel elements.

In fact, the relationship with Simone is somewhat overplayed, as are the implied relationships with secular rock stars. Most of Carlebach’s melodies are set to words of the Jewish prayer book and the Bible, and he was mentored by the Modzitzer Rebbe along with Ben Zion Shenker. As biographer Ophir notes, the jacket of Carlebach’s very first record (issued in 1959 and reissued in 2002) credits the influence of the chassidic style of transformative singing in prayer that Shlomo imbibed as a youth in Baden and that enabled him to invent new tunes easily and spontaneously.

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The actors in “Soul Doctor” are Broadway caliber. Ironically, the lead role was played by a non-Jew in the first two runs of the play, though one never would have known it from his performance. The lead role in this run is played by Josh Nelson, a popular performer/composer of modern Jewish music.

The current version of the play differs in several not insignificant ways from the earlier runs. It has no intermission and some scenes were added, others modified, and still others deleted, including a very significant one referred to earlier. There is more touching between men and women in general and Carlebach and women in particular, and more skin shown than in the previous performances.

Carlebach was a brilliant scholar, composer, performer, folk hero, and dispenser of charity, but he was not a saint. He famously observed, toward the end of his life, that he had to fix some things, although the context in which this line is spoken in the play implies he had to fix his failure to adequately bond with his followers.

Sadly, the Broadway run suffered from the worst timing imaginable. It premièred in the summer, always a down season, and continued through the Jewish holidays, which of course put a severe dent in attendance. The current run benefits from perfect timing, as it premièred two nights before Chanukah.

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Rabbi Aaron I. Reichelm esq., has written, edited, or supplemented various books, most notably about rabbis and community leaders in his family. But one of his most enduring memories is hearing that his grandmother who he remembers as always being in a wheelchair consistently said that her favorite English song was “Count your blessings.”
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