Centuries ago, the rabbis banned Jewish women from singing in public, fearing the effect their voices might have on men. Hearing Neshama Carlebach at an open-air concert in Jerusalem last week, you could understand their concern.
Like most of the women in her predominantly Orthodox Jewish audience, Carlebach is dressed demurely enough in an ankle-length skirt and high-necked, long-sleeved blouse. But her extraordinary voice, traversing a range from soaring folk melodies to throaty jazz-blues, is exactly the kind of immodest instrument the rabbis had in mind.
Her concerts have the flavour of a spiritualist revival somewhere between Woodstock and the Western Wall. The audiences on her latest tour of Israel are predominantly religious twentysomethings, many of them dressed in flowing, hippie-style robes. The audience breaks into spontaneous freestyle dance, their flailing hands reminiscent of 1960s folk festivals, but the severe head scarves of the young married women and separation between men and women seem more suited to an Orthodox synagogue service.
When the encores finally end, you realize this is no mere musical recital.
There is no backstage. Carlebach waits beside the instruments as a long, patient line forms and the audience approaches her one by one. Some ask for autographs. Some just want a hug.
Carlebach acknowledges the influence of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, but for Jewish audiences around the world, the 29-year-old is more than just a singer -- she's the reincarnation of a legend.
Her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was a towering figure in modern Jewish life, a yeshiva-trained Hasidic rabbi and 1960s hippie who became a wandering minstrel and the leading Jewish songwriter of the century. Most modern Jewish music, from synagogue liturgy to youth-group dance tunes, was composed or inspired by "Reb Shlomo." An unconventional figure, in the Summer of Love in 1967, he founded the House of Love and Prayer in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, a commune that fused Jewish tradition with folk rock and Hasidic teachings, creating a new form of Jewish worship.
"Shlomo Carlebach was God's gift to the Jewish people after the Holocaust -- he created a model for post-Holocaust Jewish spirituality," says Yossi Klein Halevy, a Jewish social commentator and fellow of the Shalem Centre in Jerusalem.
"He was the most important creator of Jewish religious music of the 20th century. Jews will be singing their prayers to Shlomo melodies for centuries to come," says Klein Halevy.
Many of his tunes have become standards, from the anthemic AmYisraelChai (The People of Israel Live) to the haunting melody for the biblical verse Veshomru (They Shall Observe), which welcomes the Sabbath on a Friday evening.
Some of Neshama's earliest memories are of accompanying her father to perform in strange places.
"I was with my father when he would sing in prisons and, by the time he was finished, the prisoners were dancing with the guards -- you didn't even know who was who," she says.
Neshama, his eldest daughter, grew up in Toronto and studied drama at Ryerson University before taking a degree in humanities from York University. She aspired to be a Broadway actress until her father's death in 1994 at age 69 thrust her into the limelight.
Two weeks before he died, they finished recording an album together. There were a string of concert dates left to fill. Even as the family sat in mourning, she was asked whether she would take his place, and she agreed.
"I was catapulted without even realizing what was happening with my life into this new business, into this new life," she says.
"I'm so grateful. Not only did it give me an opportunity to really mourn my father in a beautiful, expressive and incredible way, but it really gave me an opportunity to find out what my true mission was in this world -- and this was it.
"My mission is very similar to his -- to bring peace and love. I'm very innocently, naively optimistic. Music speaks to the soul like nothing else.
"When you're capable of singing and coming together in song, the world can change."
"There are all these barriers we put up around ourselves, and somehow when you have a song, the song just breaks down all the walls," she says.
Her music is interspersed with stories about her father, related in language peppered with modern Yiddishisms. He existed, she says, on a diet of "pep pills and coffee," constantly in demand by acolytes and hangers-on and rarely at home. The constant touring, the peace and love he preached to his audiences and his "openness with women" as Neshama describes it, got him into trouble with the Orthodox and destroyed his marriage. Her parents separated when she was 5, although she says they remained in love. She says they were planning to reunite when he died.
Neshama is passionate about the need to give women a voice in modern Jewish life, which is why she ignores the rabbinical prohibition on singing in public.
"The world is changing and women need to have a place. When they can sing, when they have a voice, they feel like they have a place," she says.
Still, many Orthodox women prefer her to perform without men around and half of her concerts are women-only.
"I do them mostly because a lot of women just feel more comfortable that way," she says. "There's always a moment or two when there's this incredible singing, all the women together. You have this incredible harmony and even silence.
"There's always fidgeting when there's men around," she says. "Women have such a spiritual depth and talent within the music, and connection that you just don't have with men. I do love men, but there's always a different quality that happens when it's only women."
She married last August and now lives in New York, but a decade after her father's death, she is constantly touring and about to release a sixth CD with her keyboard player and musical director David Morgan. Tomorrow, she plays her first public performance in Vancouver, at the Vancouver Rowing Club.
Some people criticize Neshama for coasting on her father's coattails when she clearly has the talent to do much more. She says she has been recording a mainstream album with Morgan, 35, who studied jazz in New Orleans with Ellis Marsalis.
Morgan says they are composing more of their own material and he has encouraged Carlebach to broaden her repertoire, but Shlomo continues to cast a long shadow.
"There's two audiences out there," says Morgan. "There are people who miss Shlomo so much they just want him back and they feel like Neshama should be carrying on his legacy and just doing his music. Then there's people who feel like we should be doing more of our own things. For us, it's somewhere in the middle. We would always do his music, but in our own way. If Jakob Dylan only did his dad's music all the time, people would think he's pathetic."
Neshama Carlebach performs for the Or Shalom Community at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Vancouver Rowing Club in Stanley Park (604-872-1614); and in Hamilton on June 21, a show for women only at the Adas Israel Congregation (905-528-0039).
Jerusalem was transformed into the setting for a real-life political "Where's Waldo?" yesterday as two right-wing cabinet ministers took evasive action in an effort to sabotage Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to dismiss them.
Mr. Sharon sent letters of dismissal to Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon of the right-wing National Union Party in an effort make sure his proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip would pass a cabinet vote planned for tomorrow. Both ministers are fiercely opposed to the plan.
Mr. Elon went into hiding to evade the letter of dismissal, which only takes effect 48 hours after it is delivered to him personally, and so complicates the cabinet vote.
"By the end of 2005 there will be no Jew in Gaza," Mr. Sharon told supporters this week. "I plan to uphold my commitments and pass the decision Sunday."
The dismissal of the two ministers would leave a cabinet majority in favour of Mr. Sharon's pullout plan, but puts his coalition government at risk of collapse.
He invited the two National Union ministers to his office at 9 a.m. yesterday to receive the dismissal letters, but they refused to attend. Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon dispatched envoys to their homes, but they weren't there.
Messengers caught up with Mr. Lieberman as he exercised in a gym, but Mr. Elon, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Bet El near Ramallah, was in hiding last night.
Speaking to Israel Radio yesterday by telephone, Mr. Elon vowed to avoid being served with the letter and threatened to attend tomorrow's cabinet meeting and vote against the plan.
He described Mr. Sharon's moves as undemocratic and a step "that disgraces the government and efforts at maintaining a legitimate law-abiding government." He added that Mr. Sharon had informed him by phone that he was fired, but that wasn't good enough.
Mr. Sharon's decision to get tough with opponents within the cabinet of his coalition government followed a week of fruitless talks with his main Likud rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and other Likud hard-liners aimed at finding a compromise formula for the Gaza withdrawal plan.
Mr. Sharon wants to remove all 7,500 Israeli settlers and the hundreds of soldiers guarding them from the Gaza Strip by the end of next year and says he will push ahead although members of his own party voted against the plan last month.
"He feels confident enough to push this thing to the breaking point," said Mark Heller of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "It's an indication of Sharon's determination to push through and let the chips fall where they may."
The Prime Minister has taken a major risk in firing the two ministers. Their departure from the cabinet leaves him with only 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Either the firings or a cabinet vote in favour of the pullout plan could lead to the departure of the National Religious Party, which has six seats, causing the collapse of Mr. Sharon's coalition government.
But his determination to withdraw from Gaza could win the support of Shimon Peres's Labour opposition, which might even join a national unity government to get the job done.
A Gaza pullout would be hugely popular with the wider Israeli public. A poll published yesterday by Haaretz newspaper showed 60 per cent in favour and only 34 per cent opposed.
There is also talk of Mr. Sharon calling a general election and joining Mr. Peres in a new, broad-based centre party that could dominate Israeli politics and rescue the country from years of instability caused by dependence on tiny fringe parties.
After initial skepticism, Palestinian and Arab leaders are also warming to the pullout idea. Last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak signalled for the first time that Egypt would be willing to guarantee security in the Gaza Strip after an Israeli withdrawal. Until now, Mr. Mubarak has been careful not to get directly involved in the murky and dangerous world of Gaza's warring militias.
Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan said he would be pleased to take control of any area vacated by Israel. After initial doubts, Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia has adopted the same policy.
Israel's secret service assigned two bodyguards to Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski yesterday after ultrareligious groups threatened him for permitting the city's Gay Pride march to go ahead.
At the same time, event organizers accused Mr. Lupolianski, the city's first ultra-Orthodox Jewish mayor, of undermining the event by not giving it the level of municipal support it has enjoyed in the past.
About 3,000 homosexual, lesbian and bisexual Israelis, some in army uniform and others in full drag, marched through the city centre to a lively party in a park, under a banner proclaiming "Love Without Borders."
"This is exactly the message this city needs: that we can have a pluralistic society in which all people can co-exist," said Noa Sattath, head of Open House, the city's gay and lesbian centre, which organized the third annual event.
A small group of protesters heckled the parade-goers, while some ultraorthodox Jewish leaders condemned the event as "ugly" and unsuitable for the holy city.
Dozens of armed police escorted the marchers, who carried rainbow banners and large clusters of balloons. Many participants wore large rabbit ears, a response to remarks by David Basri, a well-known Kabbalistic rabbi, who has derided gays as "subhuman" and said they would be reincarnated as rabbits.
One Israeli soldier in full uniform, who gave her name as Reuma, said she was not gay but wanted to add her support to the marchers.
"Kudos to them," she said. "I'm very proud to support them and very pleased they want to express their identity in this way."
Sharon Omer, a 27-year-old software programmer from Tel Aviv, said it is difficult to be gay in Jerusalem because of the city's "heavy religious presence."
"In Tel Aviv people pay no notice if gay people walk hand in hand or kiss in public, but Jerusalem is such a conservative city," said Ms. Omer.
Still, Jerusalem is planning to host the World Pride international gathering next summer.