A Prayer for Deadheads
On a quest for Jewish soul at the ‘Blues for Challah’ Grateful Dead Shabbat retreat
“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.
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.
Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz pass their collection of works by untrained artists to the Philadelphia Museum of Art