An Interview with Jewish Musician Josh Nelson about Off-Broadway's "Soul Doctor"
Singer/songwriter Josh Nelson has long been sharing his gift of Jewish music with the Reform Jewish community and beyond. Now, he brings that gift to the big stage in the Off-Broadway return of Soul Doctor, a musical about the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. ReformJudaism.org caught up with Josh to learn more about this production, which officially opens at the Actors’ Temple Theater on Dec. 14th.
Tell us a little bit about Soul Doctor. What’s the focus of the show?
Soul Doctor tells the story of Shlomo Carlebach, sometimes called “The Singing Rabbi,” whose family escaped from the European Nazi invasion in 1939 and ended up in New York City. His father was the rabbi of a small, Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side, and after his death, Shlomo took over the rabbinate. The show is a musical theater-style biographic of that period of his life – his childhood through his return to Vienna.
Soul Doctor first opened a decade ago, and was co-created by Neshama Carlebach, Shlomo’s daughter and a talented Jewish musician herself. It first debuted in New York, played in New Orleans and Miami, ran Off-Broadway in 2012, and enjoyed a Broadway run in 2013. Now, the show has been reworked again, into a 90-minute show with a 15-person cast. It’s re-opening at The Actors' Temple Theater, Congregation Ezrath Israel, a 200-seat venue that is based in an active synagogue; their sanctuary is the theater!
Who was Shlomo Carlebach and why is his story worthy of the stage?
Shlomo was a great teacher of Torah, an academic and intellectual genius on track to become a serious Jewish scholar. Eventually, though, he found that outreach to people who were disenfranchised by the Jewish community was more important to him than staying home and studying. That’s when he began to write liturgical musical. Unfortunately, at that time, there was no place within the Orthodox world for the kind of work that was Shlomo was doing. In that community, contemporary music and worship simply didn’t – and largely still don’t – mix. He was banned and ostracized.
Outside the Orthodox community, though, Shlomo flourished. In San Francisco, he opened The House of Love and Prayer, a sort of hippie synagogue where he taught, made music, and created a new kind of Jewish community. He made a name for himself as a groundbreaking Jewish musician and spiritual leader who helped people find points of access into Jewish life.
Shlomo passed away in 1994. What became of the music he made?
Most modern-day Jews know the music Shlomo created, whether they realize it or not. Reform Jews may think first of the late Debbie Friedman, whose music permeates Reform Jewish life – at congregations, at summer camps – but before Debbie, there was Shlomo. His music was the early soundtrack of American Jewry, beginning in the 1960s, and we still sing much of it in synagogue today. The melodies that we call “traditional,” the ones that feel like they came down from Sinai? Many of those came from Shlomo, including songs like “Ki Va Mo’ed” and “Oseh Shalom.” He wrote more than 5,000 pieces, from simple, beautiful prayers to intricate, complicated compositions.
What’s it like for you, playing the role of such a well-known and beloved figure in Jewish life?
It’s a pretty powerful thing, and it has affected me tremendously. What drove Shlomo was helping people find ways to connect to something bigger than themselves. He believed that we all have the responsibility to heal each other, to heal the world, and that change starts with one person – that if you reach just one person, you’re changing the world. He truly believed that, and I do, as well.
One of the greatest benefits of my work is that I get to go out into the Jewish world and try to bring people a sense of spirit, connectivity and hope. It’s what drives me and, ultimately, what gets me on the plane every week. In that way, I see Shlomo as sort of a kindred spirit.
How might Soul Doctor and Shlomo’s life story resonate with Reform Jews, in particular?
Reform Judaism is ultimately about personal choice, about allowing the spirituality in your heart to rise to the surface, to not be constrained by the boundaries of the community around you, to be empowered by community but not bound by community. Shlomo’s story, even though it began within the context of the Orthodox community, is similarly all about those tenets. In so many ways, it’s our story.
The Reform Jewish Movement has been transformative for me, and I’m proud to consider it an important part of my Jewish home base. I think about that sometimes, in the midst of doing this work, and feel incredibly grateful that this community allows me to push the envelope and explore my own spirituality without fear of retribution or disdain. In playing Shlomo, I’ve been trying to understand what it would be like not to have that community – and it makes me feel incredibly blessed.
Soul Doctor, starring Josh Nelson as Shlomo Carlebach, open December 14, 2014, at the Actors' Temple Theatre. Learn more about the production and buy tickets at SoulDoctorBroadway.com.