Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Dan really seemed to enjoy his birthday this year, despite the present he got from the city of New Orleans calling him up for jury duty on the 12th - he volunteered at the Jewish Federation's General Assembly gathering, and then roped a bunch of us into seeing a nifty musical about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach:

I wish I could say I really liked it overall, but there are many things about it that nagged at me...among them the whole Fiddler on the Roof-meets-Hair vibe of most of it.  I don't think those two things meshed well in the context of this musical, which, even though it is trumpeting its "Next stop - Broadway!" status loudly, doesn't seem to be up to it just yet, as the community theater-esque aspects of its production are still pretty strong.  Sure, some of that is because of the way Le Petit Theatre imposes its size and its limitations on the show, but there are times when the same actor is taking on a bunch of roles and it is painfully obvious - oh, you're usually Mama Carlebach, but now you're the Rebbe Schneerson, for instance.

What really soars above all of this mishmash (some examples: turning Nina Simone into a much more pivotal character in the musical than she actually was in Shlomo Carlebach's life; shuttling Ben Crawford as Shlomo into situation after situation and leaving his character looking like a pinball in a machine on Tilt saying "Gevalt!" a lot), is, at long last, Shlomo Carlebach's melodies.  The story of the man's life, however, is too varied and, in many ways, too controversial for a mere musical to deal with it all, no matter how hard or how valiantly it tries.

I guess the best way to put some of what I'm talking about is to first read this review of the simultaneous recent releases of two recordings: one made of a concert of Reb Shlomo's, circa mid-1970's, the other of his daughter Neshama's interpretations of his music in the present, backed by a gospel choir.  The latter is an amazing album, by the way - Neshama knows how to spread Carlebach's music and his messages, having done it on her own since his passing in 1994, and if you get a chance to see her perform live, take it.  Carlebach the man, however, is a fascinating study in what happens with one life caught between the orthodox Jewish world after the Shoah and the larger, chaotic world of America in the 1960's and 70's, between the obligations of family and of a public he felt needed his music and his messages to fully repair the world, between what Jewish law dictates about behavior and true compassion and respect for the other, regardless of sex or creed.  The latter, it was revealed after his death, wasn't negotiated too well, especially in his relations with women. It's a tricky business, trying to separate the man from his better acts, and it probably can't be completely done:
Nonetheless, for the many who knew Rabbi Carlebach as a holy guide, hearing allegations may raise a conundrum: "How it is possible that a person who can affect us so powerfully & can at the same time be imperfect and do things we find very, very hard to countenance," asks Rodger Kamenetz....

This cognitive dissonance echoes through Jewish tradition, which is filled with flawed leaders, Moses and David come to mind, who are appreciated for their greatness and forgiven for their human failings. "It is important for us to be reminded that even our spiritual teachers are flawed human beings," notes Rabbi (Daniel) Siegel of ALEPH. "I hope that somehow, as time goes on, we will learn how to honor Reb Shlomo's gifts and, at the same time, to acknowledge those for whom his presence was difficult and even painful. While I cannot predict how this will happen, I know that honest and open discussion of the totality of Reb Shlomo's life can only help."

Indeed, the holding of both parts of Shlomo Carlebach in mind have come into relief as these allegations against him have collided full force with the reverence many still feel for him. Some of his followers have jumped to his defense in the face of claims such as these. Lilith has received both the outrage and prayers of those trying to stop the publication of this article. Coming from as far as Israel, England, and Switzerland, comments have ranged from denial that such actions could have taken place to testimonials to his greatness. More than anything, these calls, emails, and faxes have demanded in various ways that we perpetuate the silence.

"Whatever negative there is to say there [are] a million positives you could choose," one protester wrote. Another told us, "He alone gave me the sense of beauty of being a Jewish woman." A third, even more adamant, suggested hat "there is no way you can even think of publishing a negative article about a man like Rabbi Carlebach, if you even begin to know the unending acts of kindness he devoted his life to performing." Finally, some protested against these allegations coming to light, "regardless of truth or right," "How dare you sully the memory of such a soul, such a tzaddik?" one correspondent asked.

Kamenetz suggests that this need to see only the positive sides of Rabbi Carlebach should be expected. "We want to be moved, we want to be touched, and we project that onto certain individuals," he said, explaining how such an idealized perspective develops.

Explains Rabbi Julie Spitzer, "It is not uncommon when women come forward with their stories of inappropriate sexual contact with a rabbi or clergy member that the members of the congregation or community so much want to disbelieve those shocking allegations that they vilify the complainant and glorify the abuser." Rabbi Spitzer is director of the Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues and for 14 years has served on the National Advisory Board for the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence.

In the cacophony of voices expressing doubt, fear, fury and grief, Rabbi (Lynn) Gottlieb asserts, "This is about our relationship to power, rabbinics, patriarchy. This is not about him. It is about the women he hurt."
This master of song and story has indeed left a mixed legacy behind...but it is, at long last, a mistake to only focus on the stories, the songs and the melodies...which need a major reworking by members of the Carlebach family and Jewish music scholars, anyhow, according to someone I know who studied Carlebach's life and music - I was told, in effect, that the only way to get at a "true" melody of his is to listen to his recordings and mesh those together with what has been written down (and what has been written down is becoming harder to find).  As Reb Shlomo's music becomes enmeshed with the Jewish liturgy, and whatever copyrights there were on his music are neglected, the more the man himself will most likely fade from memory unless something is done...and I don't know if Soul Doctor is the vehicle with which to do it.

"I want my money back!" one of our friends half-jokingly cried to a streetcar sporting an ad for the musical.

Indeed.  Any musical using the halfway-to-Tom Lehrer line "You'll be doing the hora in Sodom and Gomorrah" in earnest needs to reexamine its raison d'etre....and it also needs to stop having Nina Simone call out "Shay-le-mo!" at every opportunity.  Nina was smarter than that.


One thing I didn't realize is that the granddaughter of Totie Fields is in Soul Doctor.

Nice to see such naches continuing on through the family.  And L.R. Davidson's voice is definitely worth a listen.

More on Totie here.


Kevin said...

I love Totie Fields.

Adrastos said...

Thanks for the link to the Totie Fields post. I really enjoyed that.