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