The Baptist pastor and the Orthodox rabbi’s daughter walk onstage. This isn’t the beginning of a groan-inducing joke told over a couple of beers — it’s what celebrated Jewish singer/songwriter Neshama Carlebach does every time she performs with the Rev. Roger Hambrick and the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir. And while the relationship might seem somewhat unusual, for Carlebach, it’s produced the sort of excitement and joy she yearns for in her artistic life.
How did the daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a prominent Orthodox rabbi and iconic liturgical composer, get involved with a very Christian choir? The answer is simple: Rabbi Avi Weiss. Weiss, who’s famous, or perhaps infamous in some circles, for being the first Orthodox rabbi to give smicha (ordination) to a woman, introduced Neshama Carlebach to Hambrick at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at his synagogue a couple of years ago. “I felt very much connected to them right away,” Carlebach says of the choir. “Their church is an old shul. ... It smells like a shul, and there’s Magen Davids [Jewish stars] everywhere.”
Soon after this initial meeting, Carlebach (whom I have known for years as a family friend) began performing with the choir, and it was not long after that, she says, that her own invitations to sing included the query, “Why don’t you bring your gospel choir?” This year, Carlebach and the choir together recorded the album “Higher and Higher,” released by Sojourn Records/Sony, and it became an official entrant in the 2011 Grammys. They have been touring together ever since.
Carlebach is nervous about the latest leg of her tour that’s about to bring her to the Los Angeles area, though hers is not the sort of anxiety many Americans feel before flying cross-country, nor the kind of stage fright most of us might experience before performing in front of hundreds of people. She’s worried about her children.
“I’m freaking out,” she says. Her upcoming trip will be the longest she’ll be away since her second son was born last year. Lucky for Carlebach, she’ll be traveling with Hambrick and the choir, her surrogate relatives. “I feel like I’m with my family with them,” she says.
“How often in life are you ever handed a chance to see both a mirror to your own soul and your place in the world just in one moment? But that’s what this collaboration does for me,” she says. “I feel like it’s been an amazing, organic, beautiful flow to how this whole thing has developed.”
Asked whether she’s caught any flak from the Orthodox world for her association with Hambrick and his choir, Carlebach is measured in her response. “I did, and I do. Just like when I began to sing, I got yelled at and I got throngs of hate mail from random people who I didn’t know telling me that I was making the wrong decisions in my life, and how could I shame my father this way.”
But the hatred doesn’t deter Carlebach. “It strengthens me even more. There was a time I would take in their comments, and I could really feel it in my own gut, my own soul, to see if there was validity in their fear. And my answer is a resounding no.”
This month, Carlebach will appear at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin and Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills, two local Conservative synagogues. She says she’s heartened by the zeal with which the liberal Jewish community has accepted her: “I am an Orthodox Jew, but my belief is in humanity,” she says. “I don’t feel the loss not singing for people who won’t hear women sing, and I don’t feel the loss of singing for people who are not ready to accept this kind of coming together of worlds; I don’t feel a loss at all. I feel sadness.”
Carlebach hopes her work with Hambrick will show people that “the daughter of a rabbi and a Baptist minister can come together and create harmony.” She takes her cue in this regard from her late father, who was known for reaching out, rather than looking in. “When my father passed away, there was an invitation to sing for the pope, but he was not able to keep that appointment, clearly.”
More than anything, Carlebach wants to make sure that the world her sons grow up in is a beautiful, caring one. She says that being a mother “gives me something to dream for, it connects me to where I come from and where I’m going.” Having children has changed her whole outlook on life, even when it comes to plane travel. While she used to be annoyed by children on the plane who’d kick seats and cry, she’s now mellowed out. “Loving my children makes me love all children.”
When The PJ Library approached her about recording a CD of lullabies, Carlebach knew it was the right time to take up such a project. “I hope that parents feel the love that I have for my children and for their children,” she says of the new album, “Every Little Soul Must Shine.” “There’s a song about feeling the wind blow and feeling God in the wind,” inspired by Carlebach’s elder son, Rafael. “He has this hat he doesn’t ever take off, he loves this hat, a Yankee hat ... but when there’s a really beautiful wind, he’ll take it off and feel the wind in his hair.”
Carlebach says she’s at a happy place in her life. She’s also working on a live concert DVD with the choir; her performances have been selling out and her sons continue to grow and amaze her. “Everything happens at the moment it’s supposed to happen. I don’t ever feel, ‘Oh, I wish it was five years ago. Oh, I can’t believe it didn’t happen.’ It unfolds exactly as it should,” she says. “Every moment is a blessing. And today, this is my time. Now! And I’m grateful for it.”
Neshama Carlebach will be the scholar-in-residence at Congregation B’nai Israel on Dec. 9 and 10. She will perform with Hambrick and the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir on Dec. 10 at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills, and at Congregation B’nai Israel on the afternoon of Dec. 11. For more information, visit her Web site at www.neshamacarlebach.com.