Film version of Carlebach-Nina Simone musical to hit US theaters

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JTA — A filmed version of “Soul Doctor,” the 2013 Broadway musical about the life of the influential and controversial rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, will play in 600 movie theaters across the United States for one night only, on Tuesday.

The performance was filmed at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem in 2018, as part of celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the Jewish state’s founding.

“Soul Doctor,” written by Daniel Wise, earned mixed reviews during a short Broadway run. The show follows Carlebach from his childhood in Austria in the 1930s to New York, where he becomes one of the most well-known Jewish spiritual figures of the 20th century, working to fuse the modern musical sensibilities of the 1960s with religious liturgy.

It also chronicles his friendship with Nina Simone, the iconic singer and civil rights activist, whom he meets at a downtown jazz club. Given his family’s experience of antisemitism, Carlebach empathizes with Simone’s struggles against racism.

Simone’s daughter, Lisa, who produced a Grammy-nominated Netflix documentary about her mother, is an executive producer on the “Soul Doctor” film. Jeremy Chess, the original Broadway show’s producer, and Jerome Levy and Chandra McQueen are also producers of the film.

The show does not reckon with the allegations of sexual misconduct first raised against Carlebach in 1998, which include abusing his power as a spiritual leader with, among other things, unwanted touching and kissing of several women. The allegations were scrutinized again by Jewish communities across the country in the wake of the #MeToo movement in 2017. Several rabbis and congregations have moved away from using Carlebach’s music in their houses of worship in recent years. His daughter, Neshama, herself a musician, has struggled with how to uphold her father’s musical and spiritual legacy.

Josh Young as Shlomo Carlebach, left, and Nya Trysha as Nina Simone in a filmed version of “Soul Doctor.” (Yakir Bezalel via JTA)

Both Naomi King, a civil rights activist and the sister-in-law of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Susannah Heschel, a Dartmouth Jewish studies professor and the daughter of civil rights-era activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, watched the “Soul Doctor” film and commented on it in a recent press release.

“Any person watching this movie, it’ll shake ’em, move ’em and change ‘em to help make this a better world,” King said.

Heschel said the film “is a tribute to Nina Simone’s enormous influence. By inspiring and encouraging Shlomo Carlebach, Nina contributed to the extraordinary revival of Jewish music and spirit immortalized by Shlomo.”

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