Neshama Carlebach’s albums have sold 1 million-plus copies — but she views her success as a way to help others through the pain of life transitions toward inner strength and spiritual growth.
“Music brings healing to our souls,” says Carlebach, who will perform at the Fox Tucson Theatre on Oct. 29 with the Glory to God Singers, led by Rev. Milton Vann. She last performed at the Fox in 2011.
A single mother with two sons, ages 6 and 9, she says going through a painful divorce left her with a special empathy for women who raise children alone. “I’ve experienced a lot of pain and loss. It’s a gift to be able to take what I’ve gained and encourage others to create new strength and understanding in their own lives.”
Born in New York and raised in Toronto, Carlebach began singing at age 5, and sang with her singer-songwriter father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, for five years before his death in 1994. “He was the pioneer of Jewish modern music,” she says. “He wrote more than 5,000 songs,” sung in countless Jewish schools and synagogues. “He was the biggest influence in my life — and my best friend.”
Singing mostly her father’s songs, she calls her music “Jewish soul.” Her name, Neshama, means “soul.” Currently singing with a Baptist gospel choir, she embraces a message of unity and spirituality.
“My music isn’t about my Jewish journey,” she says. “I speak and sing about gratitude and joy, my love for humanity, my desire for peace, and a deep hope for all we can be, for the sake of our children. People today don’t hear their soul’s voice in their ear — their souls are blocked. Music opens a channel inside. When you’re connected to your own spirit, you can feel love and connection with others.
Most of her songs are the words of prayers, which she explains as she goes along. They incorporate a wordless melody, called niggun, where her audience is invited to participate. “When you sing a melody without words, you can insert your deepest longing. That’s where my father was a magician. It’s complex and simple, like all of us.”
Because of her healing message, she says, “I’m often part of events that are very traumatic,” such as singing at the gates of Auschwitz on Holocaust Remembrance Day. “I also had the honor of singing at Ground Zero on the first anniversary [of the 9/11 attacks],” she says, recalling that she “felt surrounded by all the souls” of those who died there.
Her 2016 schedule includes a 22nd yahrzeit concert for her father and performances across the country. On Nov. 15, she’ll be inducted into the Brooklyn Jewish Hall of Fame.
After her divorce, Carlebach felt unable to sing or write songs, or to help with other people’s pain. Now she’s started writing songs again, and says, “I feel excited about the next chapter in my life.” Her plans include writing a book, singing at concerts, festivals and interfaith events worldwide, as well as private lifestyle events, and being the best mom possible to her children — “the most important mission of my life.”
Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.