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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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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A Prayer for Deadheads

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