In Soul Doctor, the word heart is used with as much reckless frequency as is the word cunt in any work by Henry Miller. There are hearts for love and hearts for hate. Two hearts beat as one. And the rhythm of music does not come from the percussion but from (you guessed it) the heart. Shlomo Carlebach (Eric Anderson) must be the happiest Jew in the history of the race. His journey from yeshiva bochur in Nazi Germany to rock star rabbi in sexually liberated San Francisco has supplied him with the mantras “We don’t get high on drugs, we get high on Shabbos!” and “May every tear of sorrow turn into a tear of joy.” This latter thought is in direct contradiction to his childhood teacher (Ron Orbach) who, in the musical’s only truthful moment, tells him, “Being a Jew is about pain and suffering. Joy is for the Gentiles.” Perhaps he should have listened—normally his brand of asinine self-help is cute if painfully naïve. But in the shadow of Dachau it is downright offensive.
Soul Doctor evokes a pre-Hymietown New York in which the Blacks and Jews were the greatest of allies, in which “Hava Nagila” was popular because it was sung by Harry Belafonte. Shlomo meets Nina Simone (an excellent Amber Iman)—who pronounces his name Sheylomo—by chance one night in a jazz bar, and after her throaty rendition of “I Put a Spell On You,” he decides to convert the secular and the old-fashioned to his hippy dippy Judaism through the power of song. “You can’t change the world,” Nina warns him. “You just changed my world,” he beams. What follows is over two hours of Pollyanna garbage.
When asked about working on The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer said it was like “being hit over the head with a big Valentine’s Day card every day.” At least Rogers and Hammerstein had the dignity to leave Hitler on the sidelines. At its best Soul Doctor hammers a philosophy that Kahlil Gibran would find saccharine, a politics that considers the self-identification as a “Shebrew” cutting edge. At its worst it features boys with Juden stars on the breasts singing about happiness. Yes, this is the most disgusting exploitation of the Jewish experience since Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful and certainly its most despicable rendering since a gay Führer sang his way through The Producers. But Mel Brooks was joking. Soul Doctor, unfortunately, is not.
If this is joy, the Gentiles can have it.