It is a Yiddish exclamation of surprise, incredulity. Usually, it’s negative, like “Oy, gevalt!” But Eric Anderson, the non-Jewish actor who transformed himself into the hippie rabbinic icon, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, said he learned the term can have a whole other meaning.
“[Shlomo] used it like ‘Wow,’ ‘Gevalt! This is amazing,’ ‘Gevalt! I cannot believe it,” said Anderson. “Instead of it meaning ‘Oh my gosh,’ Shlomo used it to say, ‘You are the greatest, you are the sweetest.’”
And just like that one Yiddish word, the message of the recently debuted Broadway performance of “Soul Doctor” is one of peace and love and holiness in the challenges of the post-Holocaust era. And the character of Rabbi Carlebach, who ultimately played alongside such musical greats as Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, is meant to show an enduring spirit, a man who could touch the lives of millions, as he sat personally torn between his life as a religious Jew and his mission of spreading the sparks of Judaism to the masses — no matter their affiliation.
Rabbi Carlebach passed away in October 1994.
“Soul Doctor,” which opened Aug. 15 at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square Theatre, was written and is directed by Daniel S. Wise. It takes the audience from Rabbi Carlebach’s childhood in Vienna through the height of his music career — the hippie 1970s. It predates his short-lived marriage and the birth of his two daughters, Neshama and Dari. Instead, it focuses on a lesser-known relationship he had with jazz singer Nina Simone in 1957, when she was working as a pianist and lounge singer in Atlantic City.
“I don’t think most people realized that Shlomo had a sweet friendship with Nina Simone; this is something we learned about from Neshama in whom he confided in his later years,” said Anderson. “Bringing Nina Simone and her music into the show adds some beautiful flavor and gives us some real diversity, which I think a lot of people are not necessarily expecting when they walk into ‘Soul Doctor.’”
To get into character, Anderson researched Rabbi Carlebach — on the Internet, through listening to CDs and watching videos of Rabbi Carlebach. But he said his best research was “the smaller, intricate things about him I learned through the people who would speak to me.”
Anderson met multiple times with Neshama and also traveled to Israel, where he spent two hours lunching with Dari, her husband, Ari Leichtberg, and their two children at their home in Zichron Yaakov, near Haifa. Dari Carlebach said she “liked Anderson immediately” and described him as having “a very sweet presence and really soulful eyes. … There is something really special about him.”
Dari Carlebach said she found meeting with Anderson a positive experience also because she was able to talk about her father openly, and there was someone, who knew nothing about him — had no preconceived notions — to take it all in.
After meeting with Dari Carlebach, Anderson spent a Shabbat at Moshav Mevo Modi’in, Rabbi Carlebach’s moshav in central Israel, at which his followers still live today. Anderson, who people describe as quiet and humble, said he was “very careful at first. I didn’t know what to expect.”
“I had an idea that everyone would be beautiful and embracing just because of who Shlomo was and the fact that these are people who were his friends and his family,” said Anderson. “I had never experienced a Shabbos before, with all of the traditions. I was gently led through it. … It was amazing.”
Anderson slept and ate by Dina and Rabbi Ben-Zion Solomon. Dina Solomon said that Anderson expressed to her that the Shabbat — and portraying a character like Shlomo, in general — “opened his heart in a lot of ways.”
She said she had no idea who Anderson was, or even what “Soul Doctor” was all about, until Anderson’s arrival. At the moshav, she said warmly, guests come and go; everyone wants to spend Shabbat at the moshav because of its over-long davening, a service as much as it is a performance of Rabbi Carlebach’s tunes.
“I was coming back from Tel Aviv and someone called me and said someone wants to come to the moshav for Shabbos,” Solomon recalled. “It was a Thursday, and I just said, ‘OK, he can stay with us.’”
But while Solomon said she took a liking to Anderson, she has heard mixed reviews about the production and from the storyline understands that the show doesn’t accurately portray who Rabbi Carlebach was.
“I think anyone who is religious or was close to Shlomo feels pretty negative about it. It portrays him as having an affair with Nina Simone. I know he respected her and loved her music, but they didn’t have an affair. It drags his name through the mud, and his name has already been dragged through the mud enough with those kinds of issues,” Solomon said.
Rabbi Carlebach faced allegations, which became public in a 1998 Lilith magazine article, that he routinely made sexually suggestive late-night phone calls to female acquaintances and that he physically molested numerous women over the course of decades. Such accusations naturally provoked fierce controversy about how to remember a man many consider a saint. His followers have rejected those allegations (and they are not brought up in Wise’s play).
For her part, Dari Carlebach said that one could never capture the depth and breadth of her father’s complicated story.
Rabbi Carlebach, born in Berlin in 1925 to a prominent rabbinic family, fled to New York with his parents and siblings in 1939. His father became the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jacob on West 79th Street, which Rabbi Carlebach and twin brother Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach took over in 1967. The synagogue still stands in New York and is known as “The Carlebach Shul.”
Rabbi Carlebach was a scholar in his own right, studying at some of the most renowned American yeshivot, including Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J. He later connected with the Lubavitch movement, whose rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, encouraged him to go into outreach. This mandate was the start of what became his calling, serving as the rabbi of the hippie movement. Many young Jews returned to a Torah lifestyle as a result of their relationship with Rabbi Carlebach.
“No one in the world could ever be my father,” said Dari Carlebach. “But I think he [Anderson] emanated my father’s soulfulness. … My father was so deep and wise and so universal in many ways, but he emanated this very in-the-present quality and kind of innocent wonder.”
Dari Carlebach also said that Anderson was able to fittingly capture her father’s struggle, being caught between two worlds — the religious, yeshivish world and that of the hippie world. She said her father had a huge desire “to love and heal the world” and he did it with “such heart and grace and empathy.” All insinuations, inaccuracies or even missed plot lines for lack of time (the show is but two-and-a-half hours), said Dari Carlebach, are less important than the universal message, which she hopes that “Soul Doctor” gets across.
“I think a lot of the play is the portrayal of the struggle my father had in being connected to so many worlds, but every world needed him to be all or nothing — my zayde’s shul and his family in the Chassidic world, the hippie world. I think part of his struggle was everyone’s feeling or thinking they knew what was best for him, and his struggle was trying to do what he was supposed to do and all the while feeling too lonely and judged and so torn,” said Dari Carlebach. “I hope people walk away from this play with the understanding of how so often we think we know someone or what they need or who they are — and they are so much deeper, so much more complicated. Each person’s mission is personal. People should walk away knowing how to open their hearts … and with the important message of understanding and acceptance among Jews and among the whole world.”