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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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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.

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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