The Shmooze

Shlomo Carlebach Really Was a 'Soul Doctor'

By Masha Leon

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“Soul Doctor” can best be described as “Hair” meets post Holocaust trauma with Eric Anderson’s visceral channeling of Reb Shlomo Carlebach and Amber Imam’s portrayal of Nina Simone illuminating the production.

The 700 opening-nighters at the August 15 performance of “Soul Doctor” at Circle in the Square included philanthropist and Birthright founder Michael Steinhardt (who was married by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach), Tovah Feldshuh in an eye-popping iridescent tangerine hued shawl, 90-years young Yiddish stage legend and TV star Fyvush Finkel, National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek, its executive director Bryna Wasserman and Paul Libin executive vice president of Jujamcyn Theatres.

Karen Leon
Tovah Feldshuh and Fyvush Finkel

Following a standing ovation curtain call, some 500 “Soul Doctor” devotees migrated to the 41st St. Liberty Theater for a post-performance party nosh at which a “kosher menu” was served. When I asked press representative Richard Kornberg why kosher menu was highlighted in the invitation, he said it was because ”this was the first ever kosher menu served at a Broadway opening.”

Over the years I had met Shlomo Carlebach at various occasions, but most memorable is the March 8, 1993 remembrance event at the Polish consulate in New York commemorating the 1968 Communist anti-Semitic epidemic that sent thousands of Jews into exile. To make amends and memorialize this traumatic episode of Polish-Jewish history, then Poland’s consul general in New York, Jerzy Surdykowski invited Carlebach to entertain the guests. Addressing the mixed yarmulke-wearing and secular crowd, Surdykowski said: “On the eve of the sad and shameful events in Polish History, and to pay symbolic tribute to all victims of anti-Semitism — no matter where and when it occurred — you are in for a treat.” There was a communal intake of breath as Mr. Surdykowski introduced bright-eyed, bushy-bearded guru-to-thousands: “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach!”

Karen Leon
Shlomo Carlebach and Masha Leon

As the amazed Polish and Jewish guests looked on, Carlebach — guitar slung across his chest and his eyes closed — began to strum, slowly escalating the tempo. Urging the audience to join him in “ya-ba-bay-ing,” and hand clapping, he ordered everyone to get up out of their chairs and dance! Holocaust survivors in the room looked at each other in disbelief. In a sight that could not have been imagined by Jews — or Poles — in pre- and post-war Poland, Consul Surdykowski linked arms with bearded and yarmulke’d guests to his right and left, joining an all male stomping undulating chain while his wife Teresa intertwined arms with me and joined a separate women’s line snaking through the consulate’s mirrored and gilt rooms.

That evening Carlebach was indeed a Soul Doctor.


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