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The Gospel According to Neshama

November 5, 2009 By:
Marsha Bryan Edelman, JE Feature
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Neshama Carlebach

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach began singing in the 1950s, and throughout the latter decades of the 20th century, achieved renown as a performer and as the composer of countless melodies that have entered the popular vernacular.

His "Am Yisrael Chai" was an anthem that galvanized the movement to free Soviet Jewry; "Od Yishama" and "Ki Va Moed" have become staples at Jewish weddings across the denominational spectrum; and his "Mizmor LeDavid" is "traditional nusach" in synagogues around the world.

But while the crowds came to hear the father sing his new and already familiar melodies in coffee houses and concert halls around the world, in his last years, they often received the extra treat of hearing him perform them together with his daughter, Neshama -- or occasionally hearing her alone, as he proudly relinquished the stage to her.

Today, Neshama Carlebach has become a highly regarded performer in her own right, who keeps her father's music at the heart of her busy career.

She admits that in the years following her father's death -- a reality she still finds hard to believe, even 15 years later -- she felt pressured to continue singing his songs, but that feeling quickly transformed into joy as she discovered her own gift for conveying his music -- and her own.

"My father told me that he wrote some of these songs for me to sing," she confided, "and now, when I write my own songs, I feel as if my father plays a role in transmitting these new melodies."

She is also confident that her father "would have been overjoyed" by her collaboration with the gospel choir of the Green Pastures Baptist Church, a concert that she's bringing to Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley on Saturday night, Nov. 7.

She came to know the ensemble and its pastor/director, Rev. Roger Hambrick, when Rabbi Avi Weiss (Neshama's rabbi, "since my father is no longer available," she explained, with equal parts humor, respect and wistfulness) brought the Bronx-based group to perform at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale for a Martin Luther King Day Jr. observance four years ago, at which time the choir included Shlomo's "L'ma'an Achai" in their repertoire.

Three years ago, Hambrick suggested that Neshama record with them.

The resulting album -- "Higher and Higher" -- features nine selections by Rabbi Carlebach; as well as a 10th by Neshama, her longtime music director David Morgan and producer Mark Ambrosino.

Mingling of Styles

Neshama is understandably delighted with the collaboration. This mingling of musical styles -- gospel and neo-Chasidic -- represents "worlds coming together, a healing of the rifts that exist between our communities."

Her father's very first album, recorded in 1958, featured harmonies provided by the men of a gospel choir, and so Neshama sees this latest effort as "coming full circle."

She also sees her new partnership as an opportunity to continue the work of tikkun olam ("repairing the world"), which was so important to her father. She recently took her band and the entire Green Pastures choir to participate in a project to build homes and establish local food banks in New Orleans.

The concert, sponsored by a diverse consortium of organizations -- including MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Second Harvest and the New Orleans Food and Farm Network -- was held earlier this month at the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., to raise both "funds and souls."

It was this commitment to social action, as well as the music itself, that drew Rabbi Eliseo Rosenwasser of Har Zion Temple to invite Neshama and the choir to appear in his community, and he is using the opportunity to build bridges across the generational and theological spectrum.

Neshama is convinced that her father's songs will continue to enjoy universal appeal.

"It is powerful, magical music," she says. "People who hear it cry and laugh and are transformed. It is a service to the world."

For concert information, call Har Zion Temple at 610-667-5000.

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