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A Prayer for Deadheads

On a quest for Jewish soul at the ‘Blues for Challah’ Grateful Dead Shabbat retreat

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Saturday night at Blues for Challah, 2012

Saturday night at Blues for Challah, 2012. (Beth Weiss)

“Most Jewish baby-boomers were born into a void,” explains Douglas M. Gertner in a 1999 essay called “Why Are There So Many Jewish Deadheads?” (which comes before “Understanding ‘Show’ as a Deadhead Speech Situation” in Perspectives on the Grateful Dead: Critical Writings). He answers his essay’s titular question with a Portnoysean take on postwar Jewish life: “Lacking both a strong chevra (a sense of community) and finding Judaism devoid of ruach or neshama (spiritual foundation or soul), third-generation American Jews were adrift in search of meaning, purpose, and roots.” Their grandparents were stuck in traditional Judaism, their parents were after the “all-American” lifestyle sold to them through television, and they wanted something different, to be unified in a spiritual community of fellow outsiders converging on a Haight-Ashbury promised land. Dead shows were like Shabbat services, Gertner explains, with their incense and their veggie burritos. Likewise, endless Talmudic analysis met its match in the nitpicking of Dead fans over song lyrics, and “Deep Deadheads” became the counterpart to the ultra-Orthodox in stringency of practice and devotion to their prophet.

There are plenty of Jews who don’t like the Dead, of course. I don’t. Nor did Jonathan Weiss the first time he heard one of their songs. He was lying outside, nestled in a sleeping bag in a field in Pennsylvania. It was the summer of 1970 at Camp Ramah. He was 8 years old. One of his campmates, an older boy, took out a Panasonic tape recorder and pushed play: Jon heard the din of the crowd, then a guitar. “C’mon, Jerry,” the boy asked, impatient. “Get going.” Jon didn’t know who Jerry was. He fell asleep.

A few years later, Jon’s mother decided her bookish son needed a hobby and bought him a stereo. He brought it home and plugged it in—all lights, buttons, flickers, and dials, with nothing to play. He started accumulating music, became a collector—Chicago, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Kiss. Around the time of his bar mitzvah, he was taking karate lessons at a dojo in his synagogue. “Have you heard of the Grateful Dead?” his sensei asked one day, then made Jon a copy of Live/Dead.

“I still didn’t like it,” Jon told me in the dining hall of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Ct., surrounded by Jewish Deadheads there for the center’s second annual “Blues for Challah” Grateful Dead shabbaton, named as a play on their eighth studio album, Blues for Allah. “The first three sides were just music,” he explained, his voice rising to be heard over a large group singing and praying and pounding their fists on a table at the back of the room. He thought the Dead were too experimental, he continued, but then someone gave him the Dead’s American Beauty, and finally he was hooked. “It was hard work,” he told me. The group in back of us grew louder. “But I stuck with it.”


Friday, 30 November 2012, 11:47 a.m.
Metro-North—Grand Central Station

It was on the train to Wassaic, N.Y., that I decided I should have hitchhiked. I’d paid only $16.25 to the Metro-North Railroad system, but I was on my way to a weekend of jamming and chilling, and hitchhiking might have helped me channel the vibe. The train was crowded and noisy. A guy behind me was humming operatically along to his headphones. I didn’t recognize the song, had no access to whatever emotive state the music put him in, and found the lack of entry intensely frustrating.

Changing trains at Southeast Station, I spotted a group of adults encumbered by seats and strollers for an unknown quantity of babies. The two men, swarthy—brothers, apparently, or perhaps cousins—wore yarmulkes and tzitzit; the woman: blonde, heels, tight fancy jeans. Along with a nicely dressed woman in her early twenties trailed by a rolly suitcase and a “Love Our Planet” tote bag, we all piled into the van that arrived in the parking lot of the Wassaic train station. It had begun to snow. The girl, Lisa, made small talk and pressed on me a brochure for a Jewish-educational conference she volunteered for in the city. The blonde and her husband were embroiled in some kind of domestic dispute; the other man spoke only in Hebrew; the infants (two) slept in their car seats.

We drove past bedraggled barns, picket fences, American flags. The radio, set to the WKZE “Midday Show,” played folk music tinged with banjos and crooners of the Lake Wobegon variety. Our driver, Andy—in a Carhartt jacket patched with Grateful Dead dancing bears—grinned into the rearview mirror, making subtle song-specific volume adjustments. A smattering of Christmas signage appeared as we entered the town of Canaan, a setting so resplendent with Americana it seemed an unlikely way station en route to a sleep-away camp for a bunch of middle-aged Jews obsessed with a dead hippy heroin addict and all his friends.


2:44 p.m.
Arrival—The Venue

Isabella Freedman got its start in 1893 as a cheap vacation getaway for poor Jewish seamstresses from the city, but it has since gone through a few iterations. At its current site, on a 400-acre plot in the Berkshires, a complex of cabins, greenhouses, and lean-tos are peppered around a central compound of inter-connected lodges. The center offers a continual basket of activities: regular sessions of “Torah Yoga,” a weeklong “Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute,” celebrations of the usual holidays, and a year-round organic farming fellowship for Jewish young adults who make and sell the retreat center’s very own pickles, goat cheese, and jam.

As we pulled in, Andy directed us: to our left, the synagogue; to our right, the dining room and lounge. In front, the Great Hall, with a tarped-over hole in its roof left from a tree uprooted by Hurricane Sandy. I made my way to my two-person room in the “Blue Heron” cabin up the path, hung up my coat, and stood in front of the room’s sliding-glass door, which opened onto a snow-veiled meadow dotted with farm-maintenance equipment.

I suppose it’s worth confessing here that the idea of this retreat filled me with a moderate quantity of dread. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to relate in any way. I’ve never been much more than a Jew-in-theory, and the Grateful Dead have always annoyed me. I associated Deadhead culture with drum circles, bullshit stoner metaphysics, unattractive topless women, my mom’s unshorn armpits and hippy boyfriends, and every religious service I’d ever been dragged to.

When I was a toddler my parents split over alcohol and a profound disagreement over the existence of God. Their philosophical interests diversified and then competed to lay claim to mine: By the time I hit puberty, I’d spent hundreds of hours in A.A. meetings; Christian pews; Hare Krishna living rooms; pride parades; anti-nuke dinners; a single Rainbow Family Gathering (while still in the womb); and the occasional synagogue service. I had no idea what any of these people were going on about. I was skeptical of their ardor, because I felt none of it.

Maybe I was just missing something, an absence that kept me at a slight remove from the kind of satisfying instantaneity other people seemed to find in experience. As a girl I’d dreamt of having a twin. In college I’d fantasized about starting a commune in Wyoming. Instead I’d moved to New York. Looking out at the meadow, I had a sudden urge to slide open the door and go lie down in the middle of the grass. Perhaps, I thought, turning from the glass and shrugging on my coat, I was merely envious.


4:00 p.m.
Candle Lighting—Great Hall

The detailed schedule in my information packet revealed the term “retreat” to be something of a misnomer, since the only time not allotted to overlapping group activities was devoted to eating. Back in the lounge—an expansive structure connected to the dining room and Great Hall—Grateful Dead tunes filtered softly through the speakers, the last we’d really hear of the band until the end of Shabbat. Over a snack of homegrown kohlrabi and keg-delivered PBR, I was introduced to Joel, an intensely friendly, toothy close-talker with a looming face. Joel, a regular Torah Yoga attendee, had driven up for the weekend from Philadelphia with his old college roommate Leib, an ultra-Orthodox Deadhead who said he’d logged 288 concerts back in his touring days.

We were joined by Jon and his wife Beth, a sweet middle-aged woman dressed in all black. Jon, now a doctor, and perhaps the most straitlaced Deadhead the world has ever known, is the kind of guy who pairs a denim jacket with blue jeans and keeps his iPhone in a case clipped to his belt. (When presented with information he wishes to retain, Jon liberates his phone and adds a voice memo to an audio to-do list he clears by the end of each day.) “Truthfully, I’m not a hippie,” he intoned in his northeastern accent over breakfast the next morning. “I work hard, I have material things, I don’t necessarily want to invite everyone to come live in my house.” Beth, a long-suffering non-fan, was there to support her husband—she thought he needed to relax. Back in upstate New York, the couple lived more or less across the street from the Yasgur family farm that once served as the staging ground for America’s most transformative musical and cultural happening. And now they were here.


4:15 p.m.
“You will be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation to Me: Woodstock Nation, the Grateful Dead, and the World to Come”—Synagogue

The evening’s first event was a keynote address in the synagogue by Arthur Kurzweil, a Woody Allen-esque character (and author of the Torah installment in the popular “for Dummies” book series) whose only discernible theme was something he called “crazy wisdom,” which I took to mean an ability to see unconventional truths. Rev Zalman had it, Rev Steinsaltz had it, Bob Dylan had it. When Abbie Hoffman said in court that the Woodstock Nation wasn’t a physical place but a state of mind? Crazy wisdom.

I started to zone out. Judaism is a family, Kurzweil went on, just as the Grateful Dead was, in its way, a family. For is it not written in the Gemara that when Joshua and the Israelites set out to cross the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant, it was not the Kohanim who carried the ark between the flooded banks keeping them from the holy land, but the ark that carried them. And so it is that just as Deadheads could not have existed without the Grateful Dead, neither could the Dead have existed without their fans.


5:15 p.m.
“Light Into Ashes Meditative Egalitarian Shabbat Services”—Lounge

Filing out of the synagogue an hour later, I eschewed—foolishly or wisely—the “Rainbow Full of Sound Orthodox Shabbat,” which reportedly involved raucous dancing and prayers sung to the tune of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple,” for a service with rabbi Jeff Hoffman, a small man sporting a thin silver ponytail. About 30 of us gathered in one large circle as Rabbi Jeff outlined the service. He spoke softly, slowly, like a professional practitioner of calm.

We started by closing our eyes, focusing on our breathing. Then we “deepened” the meditation, giving attention to our heartbeats. The rabbi gave us a phrase: “l’cha dodi likrat kallah”—we were to focus on that. He translated: “Go my friend; welcome the bride.” The bride, he said, was Shabbat.

After several minutes, he asked us to slowly come out of our meditations and share our experiences. A late-middle-aged woman spoke of an “OBE” (out-of-body-experience) she’d had; the woman next to her, a beautiful young flower girl with long black hair who wore a crocheted orange vest and colorful skirt, turned and smiled at her bearded, beanie-clad boyfriend, and spoke blissfully of her “inner space.” The patriarchy came up. Why should Shabbat be a bride? the woman next to me wanted to know. “I don’t mean to be difficult,” she added. “It’s good to be difficult,” said Rabbi Jeff. “It’s our tradition to be difficult,” said a woman across the room.

‘It’s good to be difficult,’ said Rabbi Jeff. ‘It’s our tradition to be difficult,’ said a woman.

We moved our meditation to some Dead lyrics: “When there was no ear to hear, you sang to me; When there was no strings, you played for me; When I had no wings to fly … ” I got stuck on the syntax and lost the last lines. I couldn’t fight the impulse to open my eyes and peek around the room. There was something familiar in this. At the end of an A.A. meeting, everyone gathers in a circle for the Serenity Prayer, ending with a chant: “Keep coming back, it works—if you work it.” The words held no meaning for me. I’d fixated instead on the feel of the hands in mine—clammy, smooth ladies’ palms and big, calloused farmers’ mitts. We were asked to share again. One man said it was the song he’d been listening to when he pulled into the retreat—he mentioned a concert date, and the way Jerry sounded singing those words. It was beautiful, he said. So sweet.

Rabbi Jeff nodded. Another man spoke of the “oneness of consciousness.” It was like being in the womb. That inspired a shudder of nods and smiles. Flower Girl said she wouldn’t be surprised if Avraham had said these very words to Hashem. Looking dubious, the woman next to me, the difficult one, clad in various shades and themes of purple, pulled out a book of Dead lyrics and began flipping through the pages.

During the last assignment—to go outside and meditate, right hand over left hand—I slinked away to my room. I sat on my bed, peering out the glass door. If Bob Dylan was the Abraham of folk music, willing to give it up in the name of something bigger than him, there was perhaps something of Moses in Jerry Garcia. From the mid-1960s until his death in 1995, he’d called upon a portion of society that had become exiled from itself and led them through an American desert of youthful disillusionment and alienation.

In Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Merry Pranksters take their bus Furthur through my hometown in Idaho: “And in Boise they cut through a funeral or wedding or something, so many dressed-up people in the sun gawking at Pranksters gathered at a fountain and all cutting up in the sunspots, and a kid—they have tootled his song, and he likes it, and he runs for the bus and they all pile on and pull out, just ahead of him, and he keeps running for the bus … ” Kesey taunted the boy, never letting him catch up, but Jerry Garcia came back, offering a bus with no limits. “I want on the bus!” I thought when I first read that passage, having recently fled the West. The hair on my neck had stood up briefly, and I’d brimmed with admiration for this kid who thought he’d heard his calling and run for it. If Boise in the ’60s was anything like Boise in the ’90s, it was no place for a young Prankster. Secretly, I still want on the bus. Apparently, so does everyone else.


6:15 p.m.
Kiddush and Shabbat Dinner—Dining Room

At dinner that night, I sat with Beth, Jon, and Shira, a retiree from Albany also staying in my cabin. Shira had brilliant blue eyes and covered herself in shimmering scarves. We were joined by a clean-cut couple who were apparently looking for an innocuous Jewish weekend getaway. An awkward silence settled over the table at the introduction of these new strangers. I turned to the woman and asked how she’d gotten into the band. This shabbaton is all about the Grateful Dead? she responded, incredulous.

David Weisberg, the center’s executive director, got up and explained the origin of the event. A portly, jolly man, he wore a red-white-and-blue yarmulke marked with the design of the Grateful Dead lightning bolt. At a retreat for mourners, he said, someone had read a line about “honoring the dead.” “Wait a minute … ” he’d thought. Everyone laughed.

We broke bread and ate soup. The diners at the back of the room began their chanting and singing and pounding on their table. They were young and Orthodox and full of passion. I wanted to know more about them, but there was something a bit intimidating, almost exclusive, in their fervor. Any interaction we had would be over-dramatized, supererogatory. I wanted them to absorb me whole. Shira started talking about college. The only real child of the ’60s at our table, she had a casually eye-rolling reminiscence of her era’s druggy excesses and confusions. She’d spent her adult life working for New York state as an administrator in the office of Child Protective Services. Now she focused her free time on dressing up and riding around in horse-drawn buggies at carriage-driving shows. She’d come to the retreat looking to commune with other people her age about the music and lifestyle of their youth; she left mostly disappointed.


(Ryann Liebenthal)

9:15 p.m.
Jerry, H-g Farm, Shlomo, & Me: Tales From the Golden Road—Synagogue

From dinner we shuffled into the synagogue for a series of modules culminating in a chat with Moshe Shur—an Orthodox rabbi and lecturer in Jewish studies at Queens College who told of his exploits in California living on the Hog Farm (famous for having miraculously fed all of Woodstock in 1969) and traveling through Europe on a humanitarian mission with his mentor Hugh Romney (a k a Wavy Gravy), a former Prankster and clown to the Grateful Dead. Rabbi Shur, a small man with a long white beard and little oval glasses, accentuated his black suit with a busy, bright yellow tie that hinted at the origins of his “Rockin’ Rabbi” stage name. He sat at the front of the room, flanked by two rows of green cloth-backed stacking chairs—about 70 in all. A skylight angled down on the bimah, and windows spanning the right side of the building surveyed murky, half-frozen Lake Miriam. “I was the Jew of the Hog Farm,” Rabbi Shur, who’d gone by Mickey and lived in a teepee with his dog Jake, told us in between drug jokes and wry tales of his celebrity encounters. (One night he and a bunch of other San Francisco Jews went to Tom Wolfe’s house: “And he had a nice Jewish wife who made us chicken soup. … No one was Jewish until this chicken soup came out.”)

A small circle of lingerers formed around a young woman named Dara who told us about her life in Asheville, N.C., and the two friends she’d driven up with: They’re not Jewish, she explained, just fans of the Dead and into the Isabella Freedman scene. Talk turned quickly to Grateful Dead arcana, notable shows identified exclusively by MM/DD/YY. This was both a conscious marker of the geekish adherence of true Deadheads and lent a certain historical specificity to the band’s lifespan. When Leib heard that I was from Idaho, he immediately thought of the 9/2/83 Boise show—24 days before I was born. I’d been telling everyone I’d never attended a Grateful Dead show, but in light of this new information, it was optimistically suggested that perhaps I was wrong. Maybe my mom, “the Deadhead” (a white lie I’d passed to imply my inborn affections for the band), had taken me to the show while I was still in the womb.

The conversation passed to Grateful Dead cover bands, to Matisyahu, and then to the Dead’s heir apparent, Phish. Leib seemed to have displaced his allegiance onto inherited strains of the jam-band genre, but his devotion clearly was not on the same level. (When asked if the 288 Dead shows he’d attended counted any after Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, he scoffed as if at some minor heresy.) Dara, hands buried in her puffy winter jacket, said she wasn’t really into Phish. It’s not the same, she said, taking a bar of dark chocolate from her pocket and passing it around the circle. Leib declined, tugging at the wisps of his long gray beard and rocking back and forth on his black Crocs, uncomfortable in the way of someone abiding criticisms made of his family that he might agree with were they not coming from an outsider.

Dara went to bed and the rest of us retired to the open half of the Great Hall, where an all-male côterie gathered around a table. They’d spent the duration of the night, so far as I could tell, pulling at handles of whiskey and rehashing G.D. trivia and tour nostalgia, their enthusiasm fracturing into multiple parallel conversations. “After Brent died … ”; “What I heard is that the sound crew assisted … ”; “I would have loved to see that second set … ”


Saturday, 1 December 2012, 9:30 a.m.
Eyes of the World Musical Egalitarian Shabbat—Lounge

At breakfast, Beth nodded me close and confided: “I don’t find the Grateful Dead offensive,” she said, conspiratorially, between bites of her bagel. “But it doesn’t speak to me. It’s like a dog whistle; either you hear it or you don’t.” Jon and Leib talked about trying to get their parents into the band. Leib was never successful. Jon’s dad was a Wagner fan—no hope there—but his mom had joined him once in the early ’80s at a show at the Nassau Coliseum. “Is that your mom?” asked the Deadheads around him. “That’s so cool.” Jon liked the spontaneity of fandom, he said. Jumping in the car on a Friday from his last class at med school, after finding out about a show 200 miles away. Would he get a ticket? Would he have to sleep in his car out in the parking lot?

‘It doesn’t speak to me. It’s like a dog whistle; either you hear it or you don’t.’

After making a quick stop in the synagogue for the Orthodox service—too cold, too Orthodox—I headed for the lounge, opting again for a service in what I’d been told was the “Renewal” strain of American Judaism. From what I could tell, it was earth-baby Judaism. Our rabbi was a luminous woman in her late 40s, and we sang to the tune of “Ripple” (“Let it be known there is a fountain/ That was not made by the hands of men”) making our way through a paperback prayer book with thick type and children’s-book sketches printed in the margins.

At some point, I stopped paying attention. I could think only of how much I hated the way religious services focalize and amplify a kind of cultural aphasia, the anxiety I’ve always carried of not having a people. How horrified I had been last night to imagine my mother at that Dead show before I was born. Like Beth, I couldn’t hear that dog whistle. And maybe I couldn’t hear the Jewish one either. But—and at this I panicked—what if I couldn’t hear any of them? What good is a person who cannot be given over to something? Even my mother, who is now an active member of her synagogue, has come to terms with the earnestness of a kind of religious adherence. I turned back to the prayer book and began to sing along, my sense of irony again deflated. I couldn’t carry the tune and wasn’t moved by the words. But it felt nice to participate in the ritual.


11:15 a.m.
Mama Tried—Meet and Greet the Momma Goats—Barnyard

Returning from a trip to the goat pen, whose highlights involved delicately maneuvering around mountains of excrement and sidestepping attempts to eat parts of our clothing, I wanted to know if Rabbi Jeff thought there was anything especially Jewish about the Grateful Dead. The night before, Arthur Kurzweil had compared Jews to a kind of desert-wandering traveling festival. Maybe there was something to that. Joel and Leib thought it was about ritual and community. Someone else mentioned that Jewish communities are often tight-knit, and fandom spreads virally within them. But was there really some particular convergence between Jews and the Dead, I asked as we rounded the lake. “No,” said the rabbi. “It’s just fun.”

Right, I thought, and for the first time, this seemed as good a reason as any.


3:30 p.m.
Dark Star Shalos Shudis—Lounge

After a second talk by Arthur Kurzweil, from which I retained only that it had something to do with ugly brides, I took a tour of the farm, up the road and across the street. We visited egg-laying ducks and gazed at a small patch of winter crops. On the walk back, Ben, a college kid from Brandeis, encouraged everyone’s attendance at an upcoming New Year’s Phish shabbaton in New York. Back in the lounge, Yoseph, a foppish young man with matted hair under a bulky, rainbow-colored crocheted yarmulke, was explicating Dead lyrics to the story of Jacob and Esau. He knelt on the floor, eyes closed tight, his face a lurid grimace, alternately intoning in English and Hebrew. A handful of people gathered around him, a few pawing uncomfortably at pages of a document he’d distributed, but our presence was not required for whatever ritual he was performing. As a group, we were discernibly self-conscious. I got up and quietly slipped away.

At nightfall, we returned to the synagogue and celebrated the end of Shabbat. The instruments came out, and there was dancing. Music again flowed through the speakers of the dining hall, and we ate. Then it was time to catch up with Wavy Gravy.


7:30 p.m.
The Wavy Gravy Movie—Great Hall

It was something to behold, the image of a small old man, a Hasid in his suit, back to a room of strangers, holding a microphone, Skyping with Wavy Gravy. Michelle Esrick, standing before us next to Rabbi Shur, had just presented Saint Misbehavin’, her documentary about Wavy. We’d watched him perform his poetry in New York, guide the masses of Woodstock through their bad acid trips, minister to the poor of Kathmandu. He was our closest link to the Dead—our proxy headliner. As he’d recounted corralling the Dead into playing a benefit concert for Seva, his cataract-fighting charity, the band’s song “Truckin’ ” accompanied helicopter footage of impoverished, green Nepal, and the crowd sang along, dancing in their chairs.

The weekend’s enthusiasm, buoyed by ceremonial wine and end-of-Shabbat merriment, had been channeled through us into Rabbi Shur. We wanted Wavy to recognize him, and us, as special. We were eager to hear about their mutual adventures with the Dead, but more than that, we wanted this clown prophet to convey to us some great truth, to give our attentions meaning and importance, to tell us why we were here. A woman standing with me at the back of the room eagerly held up her phone and set it to record.

But something wasn’t working. The audio was delayed and choppy, their conversation hopelessly stilted, and it was nearly impossible to understand Wavy’s responses. The two old friends—Wavy in his tie-dyed T-shirt and jester cap, the rabbi in his suit—no longer seemed to have much to talk about. Wavy was huge on the screen, and the rabbi looked so small. I felt a tinge of anxiety wash over the room, the apparent recognition of a kind of existential thinness. Jerry was dead; the band was over; Wavy Gravy was a flavor of ice cream. What did it matter?


10 p.m.
Dead Jam—Great Hall

And then it passed. The rabbi and the clown traded a few jokes, others came forward to ask questions more or less hopeless in nature—“If you could have us teach our children one thing, what would it be?” “How do we take our own negative impressions and turn them into something positive?” “What advice do you have about the Middle East?” The crowd dispersed. Rabbi Shur, his son, and a few others gathered their instruments and started to play. Others danced, their bodies flailing to a free-form move a high-school friend and I had mockingly nicknamed “The Judo Pizza-Man.” The musicians played for hours. They sang the songs they knew; the songs that offer them a brief respite from individual moments of fear and pointlessness and the anguish of mortality.

I hadn’t been sure if it was because of Shabbat that Leib had been cagey before, but now in the lounge, as the tunes poured out from the adjoining room, he told me about the 10 years he’d spent following the Dead from town to town, earning a living selling jewelry made from stones purchased in Israel and Greece. Touring became difficult when his oldest daughter—who’d been to 50 shows, all told—got to school age. And there was a greater fissure—over the course of his Deadhead-dom, Leib had become a Hasid. It was a gradual process. At first he treated Dead shows as outside the bounds of Jewish law, but soon he stopped going on Fridays unless he could get a non-Jewish friend to carry his ticket and meet him there. Then he stopped going on Shabbat altogether. His “touring wife” died, and he remarried.

Leib insisted his Judaic practice was not mutually exclusive with being a Deadhead, but it was easy to see it had complicated the picture. What he did not seem to acknowledge was how similarly he adhered to the two ideologies. Both required complete devotion. Leib had gotten a degree in art, and then another in math. He was a purist. He gave in to a deep-seated inclination toward obsession, that bottomless drive to track out for some ephemeral sense of internal alignment. By the end, the Dead weren’t giving Leib everything his soul required, and what the band couldn’t provide, he found in Torah study. “I hope the Jewish education I’m giving my children is everything they need,” he said, in a voice almost dismissive of his earlier self, “and they don’t have to go looking for it in the Grateful Dead.” I gave him leave to go partake of the jam. I still wasn’t entirely sure I believed him.


Sunday, 2 December 2012, 12 p.m.
And We Bid You Goodnight: Closing Circle—Great Hall

The next morning, after more seminars (on psychedelics in the Bible and “The Kabbalah of Bob Dylan”), we all gathered in a circle, holding hands, and voiced our thoughts about the weekend. Everyone was glad to have been able to share this moment. I wasn’t used to being more than an onlooker in this sort of thing and found that I had nothing to say. I offered the first thing that came to mind, which was that I was happy to have gotten to know them. Beth choked up to think of what it had meant for her husband to be here, and for her to be here with him. Then she cajoled me into letting them give me a ride to the station in their Dodge Durango. Jon was in a hurry and seemed irritated by his wife’s magnanimity. We arrived early and I paced the parking lot, alone. The train came. I sat down and surveyed the car, which was empty. I pulled out my notebooks, fighting lethargy and relaxation of focus to begin capturing my thoughts. I plugged in my headphones and started to write. I was glad to be heading home, back off this bus that wasn’t mine, anyhow.


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61n61 says:

This corpse has been picked clean folks. The Grateful Dead were the most thrilling and astonishing rock-n-roll band I ever had the pleasure to interact with, BUT those days are long since gone. Listen to the tapes, share & exaggerate your stories & adventures, but really, it’s time to turn the page. The Jewish connection to the Dead is just like everything else about the Dead, a uniquely American Musical experience.

We Jews liked the Dead for the same reasons our gentile friends did. They were, for the most part, just so spontaneous & good, & seeing them, for the most part, was so much fun, & if you happened to catch them on a particular night, they could just be transcendent. I take them w/me wherever I go, but go we all must, including the Dead. Life (& yes, death) beckons, & it doesn’t get any easier. Who knows, maybe, like the song says (w/poetic license), we’ll all meet again at the Jubilee, & if that Jubilee don’t come, maybe we’ll all meet again together, on the run.

Hey, a guy can hope . . .

Read Edward Macan’s Rocking the Classics. In it he looks at the religious-litantical aspects of 1960-70’s rock concerts. He’s dead (pun intended) on.

when will it end? in the early 80s, classic rock refugees were flocking to this sixties revival scene, already nostalgic for what is thankfully long gone. enough!

Nicole Bennett says:

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Either, you lived through the, 1960’s, or you try to recreate what you think was experienced by my generation. My, reading gave me the feeling that, EST, has morphed into group meetings of, Dead Heads, etc. Oral history and written history, changes with the story-teller or the written word. We, were a generation, impacted by, war, civil rights, and good music. Money generating, events using the history of the, 1960’s, are a product of successor generations. There, may be some truth in the saying, “If you remember the, 60’s, you weren’t there.” I, can also understand the adults of my generation who were disappointed with this seminar. My, mind wanders to the author, Thomas Wolfe, who is often quoted as having said, “you can never go home again”. Does, this quote ring a bell?

Marc Delman says:

If the spark is not there no matter where you look you will not kindle it. The 60’s have passed and Jerry is dead. While the music does sing on, hear it for what it is, the deeper you listen, the lesser it becomes.

Plumbline says:

Israels future is with the Lord……..
Zechariah 12:8-10……….

8 In that day the Lord will defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem; the one who is feeble among them in that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the Angel of the Lord before them. 9 It shall be in that day that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem…………

…………….10 “And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn.

Something was happening, but you didn’t know what it was, did you, Ms. Liebenthal?

Jessica Shimberg says:

Isabella Freedman is an amazing retreat center doing wonderful things to reconnect Jews to Judaism – spirituality, Torah, embodiment, the earth, music, social justice, the cycles of time and seasons. This is a disappointing article …

I always enjoy reading reprts of something by someone who doesn’t get it, doesn’t want to, resists with every ounce to get it and comes away – surprisingly (sic) – unaffected. But Tablet is nothing if it isn’t the master of irrelevant, empty, shallow and superficial articles.

On whatever level and whatever way one connected to/with the Dead, there was SOMETHING there, otherwise it would not have been able to endure as long as it did and impact on the remarkable diversity of people. Kinda like Yiddishkeit. But to ‘get it’ whatever ‘it’ is, you have to want to. You have to invest yourself.

As one wades through her bitterly cynical reportage, clearly it was not about the Dead and/or Yiddishkeit. It was about them. But there has to be something larger than the sum of it’s parts. Because there was an ‘it’ before there was a ‘them.’ Kinda like Torah and Yiddishkeit. What we have in this author is one who is scared stiff to be humble enough in any way to learn something she doesn’t know and understand. She doesn’t want to invest herself, always remaining on the margins of life. She’s not even living vicariously through others. And she doesn’t even observe it on its own terms. She wasn’t even there. Indeed, she doesn’t yet even exist.

This seems to me a definition and description of American Jewish life: Shallow, superficial, distant, uninterested and if otherwise, seriously narcissistic, defining everything in terms of ‘me’ rather than than unfearful integrity-laden ‘it.’

So, there is One, Who Is,Was and Will Be, before there was/is an us and after we’re not any longer. Without confrontation with what Was before an us and Will be after an us, there is no learning, no wisdom and understanding. Yeah, I’m talking about – no, please don’t say it – God, HaShem.

As the wise person said: “You’ll never understand what you don’t want to know.

    Reb Moshe, before I read this post, I really wanted you to come and shine your light at the next B4C, which creates a space for lots of people to have deeply meaningful experiences that are deeply personal and varied, some are totally amazing, some are more ambivalent. That’s okay in a community of respect. But now I’m not so sure. Are you more interested in putting others down including the entire ‘american jewish community’ or in raising up and bringing honor to Gd? I think you’re likely a really good guy, I’ve certainly heard as much from others. If you want to talk about it or get involved in a constructive way, my email is

And finally, about the the Torah of the Dead. You’ve heard of ‘The Tao of Pooh’? Well there is a ‘Torah of the Dead.’ Here’s a notion that might illuminate it for you. I’ve done about 200 Dead shows and am still a serious Chossid of Jerry and the Dead. And wear my DeadHeadedness with pride, not caring about what others think of me. At a show in Chicago in ’90, a ‘tourist’ – local but suburban college student; mostly dull and shallow and of course, cynical – asked me what will I/we do after Jerry’s gone. I thought of Mt. Sinai. What will be after we leave the Mountain? Well, we had/have the Torah. It endures, 3700 years later. It invites and insists upon being renewed through constant reinvestigation. As it contains the Infinite knowledge, wisdom and understanding from/of the Ayn Sof, it must and only requires as us to make it live as if it was today.

So I told this kid, that because the Dead facilitated the taping of shows, there are a couple of thousand of them, always new and different, to encounter and therefore to bring newness to us. And there you go. To quote Ram Dass: “Any consciousness space I’m suck in, even if it’s it a good space, is stil bad, because I’m stuck. And to be stuck is the worst space to be in.”

So what can continually take me beyond myself? Something that has the spark of Infiniteness and foreverness deep within. Like Torah. And like the Dead.

64kdn says:

What an empty, mean-spirited story. This writer would not have gotten on the bus if she’d had the chance, and is certainly not on it now. For a much smarter take on why some people love the Grateful Dead, read Nick Paumgarten’s article in the New Yorker from a couple months ago.

larryx says:

the author is a pretty good writer, but i get the feeling that each little vignette instead of just scratching the surface, could have gone a lot deeper.

i suggest 100 micrograms and a dark star loop for 8 hours, topped of by the other one, and finished with a nice lovelite!

it sure is disappointing to read an article as long as that and never feel a breakthrough— a fine journal piece, but tablet- do we really need more cynical reporting? for those who don’t like the dead, do they need another article to “prove it?” Or is the reporter just trying to make the point that “sometimes the lights all shinin on me, and other times i can barely see?”
One point of the Dead- is that they lived for a long time, alongside their fans, their music their ups and downs. And with the day in and day out of touring, just like that of spiritual practice- there are occasions of breakthroughs that punctuate years of practice. The dead were masters of ritual obervance- waiting for the moment, but not pushing it, just sensing, vibing, waiting with a non-commercial patience that reflects the wisdom of simply living. Simple people that allowed the mundane to occasionally open up and offer communion with the innefable that flows “between me and the Jewish people as an eternal sign.” Thats a lesson that Jewish practice tries to offer in all those cliches our rabbis tell us too.

    Seems like Jews that “got” the Grateful Dead experience are almost obligated to somehow translate that into Jewish practice and into their communities. Like when I use the “Ladyfinger dipped in moonlight” obligato for the Shabbes Musaf Tikanta Shabbat – but more than that too – more people need to let down their peyot and see the light between the letters

dalewynn says:

This piece is genius.

It’s sad when someone bases their “opinion” about the Dead on their few albums. It’s like the difference between looking at a translation of the siddur and experiencing an exalted davening experience.

The communal, familial, multi-dimensional experience of a live show or series of Dead shows was indescribable. The continuity of songs, lyrical memes and stories, friends encountered – the flow and mood of an entire tour, all of these things also felt like the Jewish year, one holy day linking to the next one in a dancing sequence of connection, music, reflective thought, and beauty. That was never captured on the albums.

As someone else in the thread said, though, the Grateful Dead experience doesn’t happen any more, not exactly. For a hint of what it was like, you can listen to hundreds of good recordings of live shows on Listen to the crowd noise at some of the concerts. Those are very happy people.

It’s sad when someone bases their “opinion” about the Dead on their few albums. It’s like the difference between looking at a translation of the siddur and experiencing an exalted davening experience.

The communal, familial, multi-dimensional experience of a live show or series of Dead shows was indescribable. The continuity of songs, lyrical memes and stories, friends encountered – the flow and mood of an entire tour, all of these things also felt like the Jewish year, one holy day linking to the next one in a dancing sequence of connection, music, reflective thought, and beauty. That was never captured on the albums.

As someone else in the thread said, though, the Grateful Dead experience doesn’t happen any more, not exactly. For a hint of what it was like, you can listen to hundreds of good recordings of live shows on Listen to the crowd noise at some of the concerts. Those are very happy people.

tcohen1267 says:

A well written article discussing a phenomenon unknown to the multitudes (and B4C certainly qualifies) should not simply be dismissed because readers feel the author doesn’t get “it.” First of all Ryann Liebenthal clearly was affected enough by her experiences at B4C to invest countless hours [days] typing 5 pages of carefully organized and occasionally brilliant commentary on the event and her keen observations. None of us have her upbringing, education or particular paradigm from which she writes, so who are any of us to react with anything approaching venom or disgust. And Tablet simply provides a forum for writers to express their views and observations, particularly as they relate to Judaism and Israel…so again, I am having a difficult time understanding the ill will many seem to have directed at this gracious host. If the Grateful Dead and their community have taught me anything on this journey, it is to respect and love your fellow man (and to appreciate good music). I agree that Ryann clearly seems to miss the boat on connecting with the Dead and with her own faith, but we all know many people who fit that bill…in fact, I am willing to bet a majority of the people we all know fit at least half of that bill.
All in all, I am glad to have stumbled across this piece and to have invested the time to read it, reflect and join the discussion. That is what authors like Ryann should hope for when plying their trade, and that is what makes communities like the Jewish community, the Grateful Dead community and yes, the Tablet community so compelling…the very idea of community, of shared ideas and experiences, of common bonds and history and best of all, a forum to discuss, recount, relive, embellish, and honor those who came before us, who sacrificed for us, who wrote the books and lyrics, who changed the course of history, and who, despite any differences, were and continue to be inextricably bound to the same basic principles, traditions, customs and songs as generations of others.
They love each other. We should too.

A little long but I get it.

The enthusiasm and sacredness that many people imbue the dead with stems from the sacredness with which shabbat is regarded but no longer has an outlet because of the complications of modern religion.

I would personally compare the dead and other similar pop culture phenomenons, especially those which take on a mystical quality (albeit with drugs and music) to the temple service.

Although the dead show was the shabbat- the culmination of the road trippin’ free love dead lifestyle. In this way it is a microcosm of shabbat and should remind us that truly Hashem made this world for our enjoyment and that is it’s destiny.


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