Neshama Carlebach opens BJEs learning Feast in S.F.

Neshama Carlebach will take center stage Thursday at San Francisco's Gershwin Theater, kicking off the Bureau of Jewish Education's annual "Feast of Jewish Learning" with an evening of Jewish music.

For the first time, the monthlong series of special events is beginning with a concert, according to Andrea Syrtash, organizer of Thursday's program, which is also sponsored by the Young Adult Division of the Jewish Community Federation.

"We thought Neshama captured our theme," she said. This year's forum, "Our Family Matters: Jewish Memory & Storytelling," is the essence of Carlebach's work. "She's continuing [her father's] legacy."

Since Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's death in 1994, his daughter has been delivering his message through music and stories. The rabbi, a charismatic Jewish folksinger and prolific composer who rose to popularity during the peace-and-love era of the 1960s, amassed a large following in the United States and Israel.

He established minyanim in Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York City and Toronto, and is credited with reviving Jewish music and bringing disenchanted youths back to Judaism. Although he is often called the "Jewish Jerry Garcia," it's a moniker his daughter dislikes.

"I don't think highly of Jerry Garcia," said Neshama Carlebach, in a telephone interview from her home in New York City, adding that she never met Garcia. "Jerry had a peaceful message. My father's message was peace, unity and getting your life together. Deadheads don't do anything with themselves. My father was a spiritual leader and teacher. He taught Torah through his singing and encouraged people to get their trip together."

During her youth, Carlebach recalls her father as being gone most of the time. She was raised largely by her mother, a therapist and teacher. But when she was 14, five years before his death, she began performing with him.

"It was a bonding thing between us," said Carlebach, 27. But in spite of that, music was not the direction in which she thought her life was headed. "I never thought there would be a need for me to carry on his work. I thought I'd be on Broadway. I felt I was a better actor than singer."

Her father's death changed all that.

"There was an emptiness. I sang because I didn't know what else to do," said Carlebach, who still finds her father's sudden death from a heart attack too painful to talk about. "My father's death took me on a whole different journey. It's something I can carry on which is so meaningful. This is why I was born."

She still does a lot of her father's music, but she isn't his clone. With producer David Morgan, Carlebach has written new arrangements, composed original pieces and become a headliner in her own right.

"My father was less polished and professional than I am. He had a more spiritual, carefree way of performing." Unlike her father — who performed solo, accompanying himself on guitar — Carlebach works with five back-up musicians. "There's a lot of jazz influence in my music."

Having lived in Israel intermittently, Carlebach is fluent in Hebrew and sings in Hebrew and English. Her latest CD, "Ani Shelach," includes a Yiddish folk song, "Zug, Zug, Zug." It's a Carlebach family favorite, one that she, her mother and sister Dari used to sing and dance to for her grandmother.

Although frequently compared to her father, Carlebach does not feel her career is overshadowed by his legacy. If anything, she believes she is richer both on stage and off for having been his daughter.

"My father taught me to be who I was, about the preciousness of life and to live it to the fullest," she said. "My father said you have to laugh with one side of your heart and cry with the other."

She welcomes fans who seek her out to tell her stories about her father. One of her favorites is about two hippies who were headed to Rabbi Carlebach's House of Love and Prayer. Overhearing their conversation about how they were off to get "high on Shabbos," a couple of police officers followed them, burst into the house and demanded that everyone turn over their "Shabbos" to them.

Like her father, she has a personal connection with many of her fans, and she responds to hundreds of e-mails and letters.

But comparisons are not without their downside. There are those who feel Carlebach is violating her father's tradition by singing in English and composing new arrangements of his music. Others are offended by the fact that she's a female performer. Even the cover of her current CD has generated controversy. Although far from being immodest — it only shows a picture of Carlebach from the shoulders up — several Jewish stores have refused to display the CD, claiming it is too sexy, and have it hidden in the back of the store.

"If I let everyone get to me, I'd have to buy myself a grave and lie down in it," she said. Nonetheless, Carlebach has had an alternative cover made that will be distributed to stores, though CDs with the original cover are sold at her concerts. But Carlebach is undaunted.

"My father said the greater something is, the more opposition you have."

It's the abundant positive feedback, though, that keeps her going.

"Women say 'I didn't think I had a voice in Judaism and you showed me I did,'" she said. "I want to show women, you can do it. You can reach for the moon and you can have it all."

And so she will.

Neshama Carlebach will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Gershwin Theater, USF Campus, 2350 Turk St. $25, $15 students. Tickets: or (800) 965-4827. Information: Andrea Syrtash, [email protected]