“Soul Doctor” is a Broadway musical based on the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The Rebbe, who died in 1994, was known as the “rock-star rabbi.” A colorful character, Carlebach transformed liturgical music during the 1960’s, recording over 25 albums and performing with such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and the Grateful Dead.
A brilliant Torah scholar, his progressive and unique views on everything from prayer to women inspired a generation to seek connection to God and to each other through his songs.
The play starts with a flash-forward to its last scene: a 1972 concert in Vienna, at the height of Reb Shlomo’s Haight-Ashbury “House of Love and Prayer” commune phase. The actors enter from four aisles, singing and dancing, sporting vibrant hippie-era clothing and hairdos. I felt like I was seeing “Hair” again. The Jewish version.
This playfulness is unfortunately short-lived, as we begin our plodding, chronological journey through the life of Shlomo, played with subtlety, warmth and charm by the stellar Eric Anderson.
We start in 1938 Vienna, where we meet 13-year-old Shlomo and his middle class family. The heir to a dynasty of Orthodox rabbis, young Shlomo exhibits his rebellious, passionate and determined nature. His Rebbe father moves the family to Brooklyn, one step ahead of the Nazis. He starts a strictly Orthodox yeshiva in his strictly Orthodox shul. Both, Shlomo tells his father, “are bankrupt. The bank accounts are fine, but the seats are empty.”
Shlomo sets off to find a different way to rekindle their passion of head and heart. He doesn’t have to go far. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement has set up shop nearby, and Shlomo, as his father fears he will, “goes to the Hassidim as a tourist, and comes back as a tour guide.”
The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
Wandering New York’s streets late one night in 1963, Shlomo drifts into a lounge where the classically-trained Nina Simone is singing sultry, smoky blues and jazz. With Nina’s appearance (played by the polished and riveting Amber Iman, in her Broadway debut), the show wakes up and turns an important corner. She’s not exaggerating when she sings, “I Put a Spell On You.”
Meeting Nina is the watershed event of Shlomo’s life. They are kindred souls, both unconventional children of clergy (a Baptist minister in Nina’s case). She plugs him in to his inner neshama (soul/spirit), giving him the tools to express his heart through his music. She is his muse; he is her cheerleader. Their 25-year friendship is a celebration of the secular and the sacred, of mutual respect and support, and of the limitless possibilities available to those of open hearts and minds. Their parallel rises to fame and popularity are as spiritual and uplifting as the songs each sings.
Yet not all the songs are hits. Of the 35 musical numbers in the show, those saddled with new English lyrics feel long and monotonous. The jazz, gospel and Hebrew songs (especially “Ki Va Moed” and “Sim Shalom”) are infectious and stirring.
“Soul Doctor” is not just a valentine to Shlomo Carlebad (although it is definitely that). It raises important questions such as: What are the roles of tradition and revision in modern American Judaism? How do we connect with one another and with God? When have we strayed too far from our roots, for the sake of filling the empty shul?
The play doesn’t offer any easy answers. But it does, per Jewish custom, offer a question. As Shlomo said to his father, “You brought us to America. What did you expect?”