A Prayer for Deadheads
On a quest for Jewish soul at the ‘Blues for Challah’ Grateful Dead Shabbat retreat
The weekend’s enthusiasm, buoyed by ceremonial wine and end-of-Shabbat merriment, had been channeled through us into Rabbi Shur. We wanted Wavy to recognize him, and us, as special. We were eager to hear about their mutual adventures with the Dead, but more than that, we wanted this clown prophet to convey to us some great truth, to give our attentions meaning and importance, to tell us why we were here. A woman standing with me at the back of the room eagerly held up her phone and set it to record.
But something wasn’t working. The audio was delayed and choppy, their conversation hopelessly stilted, and it was nearly impossible to understand Wavy’s responses. The two old friends—Wavy in his tie-dyed T-shirt and jester cap, the rabbi in his suit—no longer seemed to have much to talk about. Wavy was huge on the screen, and the rabbi looked so small. I felt a tinge of anxiety wash over the room, the apparent recognition of a kind of existential thinness. Jerry was dead; the band was over; Wavy Gravy was a flavor of ice cream. What did it matter?
Dead Jam—Great Hall
And then it passed. The rabbi and the clown traded a few jokes, others came forward to ask questions more or less hopeless in nature—“If you could have us teach our children one thing, what would it be?” “How do we take our own negative impressions and turn them into something positive?” “What advice do you have about the Middle East?” The crowd dispersed. Rabbi Shur, his son, and a few others gathered their instruments and started to play. Others danced, their bodies flailing to a free-form move a high-school friend and I had mockingly nicknamed “The Judo Pizza-Man.” The musicians played for hours. They sang the songs they knew; the songs that offer them a brief respite from individual moments of fear and pointlessness and the anguish of mortality.
I hadn’t been sure if it was because of Shabbat that Leib had been cagey before, but now in the lounge, as the tunes poured out from the adjoining room, he told me about the 10 years he’d spent following the Dead from town to town, earning a living selling jewelry made from stones purchased in Israel and Greece. Touring became difficult when his oldest daughter—who’d been to 50 shows, all told—got to school age. And there was a greater fissure—over the course of his Deadhead-dom, Leib had become a Hasid. It was a gradual process. At first he treated Dead shows as outside the bounds of Jewish law, but soon he stopped going on Fridays unless he could get a non-Jewish friend to carry his ticket and meet him there. Then he stopped going on Shabbat altogether. His “touring wife” died, and he remarried.
Leib insisted his Judaic practice was not mutually exclusive with being a Deadhead, but it was easy to see it had complicated the picture. What he did not seem to acknowledge was how similarly he adhered to the two ideologies. Both required complete devotion. Leib had gotten a degree in art, and then another in math. He was a purist. He gave in to a deep-seated inclination toward obsession, that bottomless drive to track out for some ephemeral sense of internal alignment. By the end, the Dead weren’t giving Leib everything his soul required, and what the band couldn’t provide, he found in Torah study. “I hope the Jewish education I’m giving my children is everything they need,” he said, in a voice almost dismissive of his earlier self, “and they don’t have to go looking for it in the Grateful Dead.” I gave him leave to go partake of the jam. I still wasn’t entirely sure I believed him.
Sunday, 2 December 2012, 12 p.m.
And We Bid You Goodnight: Closing Circle—Great Hall
The next morning, after more seminars (on psychedelics in the Bible and “The Kabbalah of Bob Dylan”), we all gathered in a circle, holding hands, and voiced our thoughts about the weekend. Everyone was glad to have been able to share this moment. I wasn’t used to being more than an onlooker in this sort of thing and found that I had nothing to say. I offered the first thing that came to mind, which was that I was happy to have gotten to know them. Beth choked up to think of what it had meant for her husband to be here, and for her to be here with him. Then she cajoled me into letting them give me a ride to the station in their Dodge Durango. Jon was in a hurry and seemed irritated by his wife’s magnanimity. We arrived early and I paced the parking lot, alone. The train came. I sat down and surveyed the car, which was empty. I pulled out my notebooks, fighting lethargy and relaxation of focus to begin capturing my thoughts. I plugged in my headphones and started to write. I was glad to be heading home, back off this bus that wasn’t mine, anyhow.
Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz pass their collection of works by untrained artists to the Philadelphia Museum of Art