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).