His father (Jamie Jackson), however, is not pleased. “You can’t make up your own Judaism!”
But that’s precisely what the real-life Carlebach intended to do — although not without precedent. He would ultimately be drawn to the hippie counter-culture, but even more, he was drawn to the counter-culture within the Hasidic tradition, the schools of Breslov and Izhbitz, where sinners are saints and saints are fools, and God, well, God, too, just wants love, because He too is just alone in His Great Oneness and desperate for a kind word and maybe a hug.
“Soul Doctor,” it must be said, omits mention of Carlebach’s more shadowy side. In 1998, this magazine reported on allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by Carlebach made by a number of women, along with attempts by some of Carlebach’s devotees to suppress what they saw as the tarnishing of Carlebach’s memory. Certainly, this was not quite the Carlebach of “mamesh, gevald, the sweetest of the sweet.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Wise, the show’s creator, disputed the allegations. “He hugged and kissed everyone,” the Times quotes Mr. Wise as saying. “He was a puppy dog, not a predator.”
According to others, however, the allegations are consistent with Carlebach’s personality. “None of this was surprising to people who knew him well,” says Shaul Magid, professor of Modern Judaism at
Indiana University in Bloomington, who has written considerably about Carlebach’s work. “He was a charismatic person, and also a man with very strong feelings, but with not a lot of self-control.”
While the show doesn’t touch on these issues, perhaps it sheds light on the subject in a roundabout way. As Magid said to me, “Shlomo was basically a yeshiva bachur [student] who transitioned to a very unfamiliar world, and very quickly found himself in a position of tremendous influence. He probably never developed a proper sense of boundaries.”
“Soul Doctor,” indeed, gives us a portrait of Carlebach in those early years as a sheltered, diffident young Hasid, comfortable in the study hall with his religious texts but completely flustered when so much as offered a handshake by a woman. In fact, what is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of “Soul Doctor” is the glimpse it offers into Carlebach’s formative years, and the context in which the man, rather than the myth, was created. While thousands considered Carlebach a friend, few of them knew him as a young adult. By the time he established The House of Love and Prayer, Carlebach was well into his 40s, far removed from his ultra-Orthodox origins. “Soul Doctor” opens a window into that early, chaotic transition from a life of Torah study and piety to the heady atmosphere of free love and psychedelics and the Summer of Love.
“Soul Doctor” might strike some as uncomfortably hagiographic, as it studiously avoids an honest examination of the man and his complex legacy. But it succeeds in its intentions: stirring audiences with its message of music and love. The musical numbers are mostly made up of Carlebach favorites, both soulful and exuberant tunes adapted to new, English lyrics. The result is a happy-clappy crowd-pleaser.