February 25, 2020

Heart and Soul

The voice on the CD is smoky, sultry, exotic, spinning out messages of devotion in a foreign tongue. But when a reporter calls at 9 p.m. on a Monday night, the owner of that voice says, prosaically enough, "Let me turn down the TV," and the next thing coming over the wire is Peter Boyle yelling at Doris Roberts.

Neshama Carlebach may be a rising recording artist with crossover dreams and the bearer of an awesome musical legacy, but she’s also a "total ‘Raymond’ fan," a twentysomething New York single who likes to spend time with pals and relax in front of the tube.

The daughter of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who in the 1960s revolutionized Jewish liturgical and inspirational music with his catchy neo-Chasidic tunes, Carlebach has released her third solo album, "Ani Shelach" (I Am Yours), which combines songs by her father with pieces created in collaboration with her producer, David Morgan.

On "Ani Shelach" and her previous two CDs, "Neshama/Soul" and "Dancing With My Soul," Carlebach, whose first name is Hebrew for "soul," sings previously unrecorded songs by Reb Shlomo, who wrote more than 5,000 tunes during his lifetime, more than half never recorded.

The latest album, nicely but not over-produced, is eclectic in style, with Reb Shlomo’s pieces given folk, pop, Middle Eastern-inflected and soft-jazz treatments.

After her father, Carlebach counts among her musical influences Joni Mitchell, whose aura is indeed present in the original songs "City of Walls," the English-language centerpiece of "Ani Shelach," and "Avi" (My Father), along with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Partner Morgan is a "big jazz guy; when we’re on the road, we listen to jazz," Carlebach told The Journal, adding that she also takes cues from other musicians she works with. "I’m like a sponge; I try to pick things up from everybody."

Carlebach, 26, was 15 when her father first called her onto the stage and demanded that she sing at one of his concerts. She left acting school to tour with him during the last nine months of his life and cut a CD, "HaNeshama Shel Shlomo," with her father two weeks before his sudden death in 1994.

She conducted her first few years as a solo performer as straight homage to Reb Shlomo, singing only his songs. "I thought that if I carried on for him, I could keep him alive just a bit longer," Carlebach said in a 1999 interview.

She grew up in Toronto with her mother, Neila, and her younger sister, Dari, now a photographer in Israel. "My mother taught me how to communicate and how to be strong," she said.

Reb Shlomo was away from home most of the time; Carlebach experienced him as "a kindly uncle figure" who would visit once a month or so. "I learned to understand at a very young age that he had a mission, that he was very driven," she said.

Father and daughter still managed to forge a close connection. "He knew my heart; he was my best friend," Carlebach said. "I wish I’d had more than 19 years with him."

Although Reb Shlomo came from the Chasidic world, his goal was to bring the largest number of Jews possible into the joy of Judaism, and he had no qualms in encouraging his daughter to sing about kol isha, the traditional admonition that observant Jewish men should not hear a female voice in song. Carlebach reports her father as saying, "We’re living in a time of emergency. As long as there are women who don’t have closeness to God, my daughter has to sing."

Although Carlebach plays some concerts for all-female audiences and considers herself Orthodox, she agrees with her father. "If a man doesn’t want to hear me sing, he can leave," she said. "If you can’t control yourself, you have bigger issues. If God had not meant for women to sing, he would not have given us voices."

Shabbat, when she’s not on the road, might be spent with friends at home or at Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE), a site for Jewish learners she discovered after leaving Congregation Kehilath Jacob, better known as the Carlebach Shul, with which her father was associated for many years.

She described MJE as "very warm and very loving" and that it filled an empty place created when she stopped attending her late father’s synagogue — a switch she attributes in part to disaffection with the shul’s new leadership.

Of MJE she said, "It can be a deep davening but it isn’t about my father."

"It’s good to love Shabbos again; my father was all about Shabbos," she said.

Carlebach recently led her first service, Friday night worship with a women’s minyan. "I had to practice; I’d never prayed out loud before," she said.

The experience was powerful. "At the beginning of kabbalat Shabbat, there were about 20 or 30 women there," she said. "At the last verse of ‘L’cha dodi,’ I turned around and there were two or three hundred!"

Women tell her that she’s an inspiration to them. "It’s very moving that I can be a source of strength," Carlebach said.

In some ways, Carlebach is a typical woman who has come to New York to make good, living on the Upper West Side with her bichon frisé. "When I’m not busy, I like to hang out with people I love and pretend I have a life," she said.

But despite her early training, she’s no stage-struck wannabe. Although her original dream was to perform on Broadway, she said she doesn’t miss acting.

"What I’m doing now is so much what I want to be doing," she said. "I can express something through music that I can’t express in theater: my brokenness at the world situation, what’s really inside my soul. With my singing, I’m very true to myself."