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