When Neshama Carlebach performs at the Jewish Center of Princeton on Nov. 19, she will bring with her the spiritual forces she has created with her own voice, together with inspiration from her late father, the “Singing Rabbi,” Shlomo Carlebach, and with some powerful accompaniment from the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir of the Bronx.
“My music is spiritual, but it is not religious because it is universal,” she told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 21 phone interview. “I am a religious Jew. The reverend” — choir leader Roger Hambrick — “is a religious Baptist. But we are not singing together for the sake of our religions.”
Rather, Carlebach said, she sees their joint mission as one of leading people to connect with their deep inner spirits in ways that spoken words can never do.
“We need to inspire people, and we are not going to do it through intellectual conversation about what God should be to atheists,” she said. “That is not going to happen.”
Given a world filled with natural disasters and too many human atrocities, Carlebach believes that her musical task is not an easy one.
“Look at Katrina, look at Japan, look at the Holocaust,” she said. “We are living in an out-of-control time, and it is easy to have a conversation about why God does not exist. But that is not going to make people cry. That is not going to get people into shul. That is not going to get people to be inspired.
“It is easy to get cut off from your own spirituality,” said Carlebach. “My work is important because it allows people to dream and it allows people to feel. People want to touch something inside that is longing for something.”
The unlikely combination of an Orthodox Jewish woman, a 40-member Baptist backup group, and a four-piece band that includes piano, bass, drums, and a Hammond B-3 organ promises a musical evening at the Jewish Center that the 37-year-old singer described as “very eclectic,” taking “the most incredible music and giving them the most unbelievable sounds.
“It is not a predictable show,” Carlebach said. “People will be very surprised.”
Compassion and commitment
Despite the strong Baptist musical tradition, the concert will have no Christian content.
The choir’s singing, she said, “is unbelievably beautiful, so on a musical level it is not hard to fall in love with them. On a human level, I feel their compassion and their commitment to their truth. They are good people and I adore them.”
In a sense, she inherited the choir from her father, a onetime disciple of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who met the choir in 1958 at their church in Atlantic City.
After Rabbi Carlebach’s death in 1994, his daughter said, she felt “not only a positive sense of responsibility but a burden to do what he did,” fulfilling his singing engagements for the following year.
Carlebach’s current schedule includes live concerts and maintenance of her website, www.neshamacarlebach.com. She is also in the process of completing an album of Jewish lullabies for the PJ Library, a program that provides, free of charge, Jewish-themed books and music to families with young children.
“Some of the songs on the album are my songs, some are my dad’s music, and some are famous Jewish songs that were not written by him,” she said.
Carlebach and her husband, Steven Katchen, are the parents of two boys, five-year-old Rafael and one-year-old Micah.
Although it is too soon to evaluate Micah’s musical talents, his older brother has clearly inherited two generations’ worth of Carlebach DNA. He is a self-taught drummer who began piano lessons last year.
“His piano teacher said to me, ‘I usually don’t teach four-year-olds because they are not serious, but your son is really serious,” said the budding musician’s proud mother.