A Prayer for Deadheads
On a quest for Jewish soul at the ‘Blues for Challah’ Grateful Dead Shabbat retreat
Dara went to bed and the rest of us retired to the open half of the Great Hall, where an all-male côterie gathered around a table. They’d spent the duration of the night, so far as I could tell, pulling at handles of whiskey and rehashing G.D. trivia and tour nostalgia, their enthusiasm fracturing into multiple parallel conversations. “After Brent died … ”; “What I heard is that the sound crew assisted … ”; “I would have loved to see that second set … ”
Saturday, 1 December 2012, 9:30 a.m.
Eyes of the World Musical Egalitarian Shabbat—Lounge
At breakfast, Beth nodded me close and confided: “I don’t find the Grateful Dead offensive,” she said, conspiratorially, between bites of her bagel. “But it doesn’t speak to me. It’s like a dog whistle; either you hear it or you don’t.” Jon and Leib talked about trying to get their parents into the band. Leib was never successful. Jon’s dad was a Wagner fan—no hope there—but his mom had joined him once in the early ’80s at a show at the Nassau Coliseum. “Is that your mom?” asked the Deadheads around him. “That’s so cool.” Jon liked the spontaneity of fandom, he said. Jumping in the car on a Friday from his last class at med school, after finding out about a show 200 miles away. Would he get a ticket? Would he have to sleep in his car out in the parking lot?
After making a quick stop in the synagogue for the Orthodox service—too cold, too Orthodox—I headed for the lounge, opting again for a service in what I’d been told was the “Renewal” strain of American Judaism. From what I could tell, it was earth-baby Judaism. Our rabbi was a luminous woman in her late 40s, and we sang to the tune of “Ripple” (“Let it be known there is a fountain/ That was not made by the hands of men”) making our way through a paperback prayer book with thick type and children’s-book sketches printed in the margins.
At some point, I stopped paying attention. I could think only of how much I hated the way religious services focalize and amplify a kind of cultural aphasia, the anxiety I’ve always carried of not having a people. How horrified I had been last night to imagine my mother at that Dead show before I was born. Like Beth, I couldn’t hear that dog whistle. And maybe I couldn’t hear the Jewish one either. But—and at this I panicked—what if I couldn’t hear any of them? What good is a person who cannot be given over to something? Even my mother, who is now an active member of her synagogue, has come to terms with the earnestness of a kind of religious adherence. I turned back to the prayer book and began to sing along, my sense of irony again deflated. I couldn’t carry the tune and wasn’t moved by the words. But it felt nice to participate in the ritual.
Mama Tried—Meet and Greet the Momma Goats—Barnyard
Returning from a trip to the goat pen, whose highlights involved delicately maneuvering around mountains of excrement and sidestepping attempts to eat parts of our clothing, I wanted to know if Rabbi Jeff thought there was anything especially Jewish about the Grateful Dead. The night before, Arthur Kurzweil had compared Jews to a kind of desert-wandering traveling festival. Maybe there was something to that. Joel and Leib thought it was about ritual and community. Someone else mentioned that Jewish communities are often tight-knit, and fandom spreads virally within them. But was there really some particular convergence between Jews and the Dead, I asked as we rounded the lake. “No,” said the rabbi. “It’s just fun.”
Right, I thought, and for the first time, this seemed as good a reason as any.
Dark Star Shalos Shudis—Lounge
After a second talk by Arthur Kurzweil, from which I retained only that it had something to do with ugly brides, I took a tour of the farm, up the road and across the street. We visited egg-laying ducks and gazed at a small patch of winter crops. On the walk back, Ben, a college kid from Brandeis, encouraged everyone’s attendance at an upcoming New Year’s Phish shabbaton in New York. Back in the lounge, Yoseph, a foppish young man with matted hair under a bulky, rainbow-colored crocheted yarmulke, was explicating Dead lyrics to the story of Jacob and Esau. He knelt on the floor, eyes closed tight, his face a lurid grimace, alternately intoning in English and Hebrew. A handful of people gathered around him, a few pawing uncomfortably at pages of a document he’d distributed, but our presence was not required for whatever ritual he was performing. As a group, we were discernibly self-conscious. I got up and quietly slipped away.
At nightfall, we returned to the synagogue and celebrated the end of Shabbat. The instruments came out, and there was dancing. Music again flowed through the speakers of the dining hall, and we ate. Then it was time to catch up with Wavy Gravy.
The Wavy Gravy Movie—Great Hall
It was something to behold, the image of a small old man, a Hasid in his suit, back to a room of strangers, holding a microphone, Skyping with Wavy Gravy. Michelle Esrick, standing before us next to Rabbi Shur, had just presented Saint Misbehavin’, her documentary about Wavy. We’d watched him perform his poetry in New York, guide the masses of Woodstock through their bad acid trips, minister to the poor of Kathmandu. He was our closest link to the Dead—our proxy headliner. As he’d recounted corralling the Dead into playing a benefit concert for Seva, his cataract-fighting charity, the band’s song “Truckin’ ” accompanied helicopter footage of impoverished, green Nepal, and the crowd sang along, dancing in their chairs.
Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz pass their collection of works by untrained artists to the Philadelphia Museum of Art