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Learning to believe again

On this new stage of my journey, my father is no longer the center of my healing process; I now know we each have our own inner work to do
(illustration by Avi Katz)
(illustration by Avi Katz)

I looked into her eyes and just knew. There was an instant recognition that she had experienced something that should never have happened. Something about her tone, her posture, her fluency in the language of surviving assault triggered my own awareness. And she wasn’t alone in the room, far from it. I stood in front of a room of Jewish teenagers, self-selected participants in a conversation about #MeToo and spirituality, grateful for the bravery of the community’s leaders who invited me to facilitate such a raw, important conversation.

This conversation is so very crucial. Studies done in 2018 (such as this one and this one) found that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. Of these children, 2 out of 3 were found to be between the ages of 12 and 17. Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 310 are reported. And out of the approximately 63,000 child sexual abuse cases reported, 93% of the perpetrators were previously known to the victims.

My life’s experiences have placed me squarely in the middle of conversations like this one, a painful gift I’ve learned to navigate, even to appreciate. I grew up the daughter of a charismatic teacher who changed the world of music and spirituality for so many. He wrote thousands of melodies, which rejuvenated a culture that had become moribund and mournful after the Holocaust. His music became so ingrained in Jewish spaces, many said that he had become a manifestation of Jewish culture itself, in the words of one, he was “the heartbeat of the Jewish People.” Speaking personally, his heartbeat felt like my own.

When my father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, passed away suddenly in 1994, I attempted to fill the void his loss opened by performing in his place and assuming his mantle of singing and teaching around the world. He became such a deep part of my own emerging life’s work, and I invoked his name so frequently, people often could not distinguish me from him. So, when in 1998, a few women began accusing my father of molestation and inappropriate sexual behavior, I was unable to reconcile my/his holy work and the description of a predator I never knew. This knowledge felt like a desecration of my relationship with my father, it impaired my ability to honor him, my ability to love him as I once did. And there was the resentment that he couldn’t defend himself or answer my questions, let alone those of his accusers. 

Until two years ago, with the publication of “My sisters, I hear you,”I had never commented publicly about the allegations, though I encountered the conversation constantly. The burden of my own silence began weighing on me, and I felt constantly torn between wanting to honor my father and desperately needing to know the truth. Even now I feel that tension, as his loving daughter and as an advocate for women’s dignity. 

I had done my best to separate myself from the controversy surrounding my father’s actions for a very long time, but, in 2017, when the emergence of the global #MeToo movement sparked a backlash within the Jewish community, that choice was made for me. My concert appearances were cancelled, as my last name was suddenly seen as a trigger for women’s trauma. Ironically, the anger at his interactions with women was instead heaped upon the head of his daughter. A ban on my father became an assault on me. And so, my eyes were forced open, something I now consider a deep gift, however painful it was to receive.

I realize now that I hadn’t distinguished myself from him enough. Perhaps my own grief and desire to keep him close kept me from facing myself. Because if I faced the controversy, I’d have to face the fact that I could not bring him back, that my inability to understand the parts of him I wished weren’t true was in part based on my inability to let him go. Something within me had to die in order to face this complicated truth.

So, there I stood in that room full of children in pain, one of about fifteen public conversations I’ve facilitated, a room of deeply unfair experiences, a room full of testimony of systemic predatory aggression, a room of internalized self-blame. And, if I were blessed to have my father in that space, I would tell him that he was wrong. Standing by my father’s side, I would not be on his side. That would be a new beginning for him. But I’ve learned something vital, something I share everywhere I go: We can’t wait for someone else’s beginning before we start on the path of believing again. That is an inner truth, one each of us must decide for ourselves. This fuller, more developed belief is the recognition that each of us is an individual with inner work to do. What happens around or to you can help propel you in the right direction, but it is only the fuel for the truer journey of self-discovery; it doesn’t define you.

It is not that I’m done loving my father. I will never be. But I have seen too much to keep my eyes closed. My tears keep my eyes open, and I see in the eyes of communities I visit that the holy work of believing again has only just begun. My travels and my pain have taught me that there is no community where abuse hasn’t visited, no place where children have never been wronged and violated. I have learned too much to remain silent.

I never anticipated feeling that the allegations against my father would bring me such sorrow and purpose. I see now that the place that has brought me the greatest pain has also empowered me to offer strength to others who are also in great pain. My music has forever been changed by this hard learning. My very voice is not the same.

My deepest hope is that the teenagers in that room, and all people of all genders in all places will know that while life is hard, no one is alone and each of us is braver than we realize. Apparently, more than one third of women who report being raped before age 18 also experience rape as an adult. We must venture into the maze of this terrible reality, rage at it, cry our hearts out, and from that place of courage work to create essential change. And remember: the shock of waking up is not as scary as continuing to sleep through the pain.

The blessing of believing again is one I wish to share as a mother, as a daughter, as a woman, as a Jew, and as an activist. The work goes on.

About the Author
Neshama Carlebach is an award-winning singer, songwriter and educator who has performed and taught in cities around the world. A six-time entrant in the Grammy Awards and winner and four-time Independent Music Awards Nominee for her most current release, Believe, Neshama has sold over one million records, making her one of today’s best-selling Jewish artists in the world. Neshama has sparked public conversations with brave forays into the place of women in Judaism and today’s world.
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