There’s a moment in Long, Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s monumental four-hour documentary exploring the life, times, and meaning of the Grateful Dead, when a sound engineer describes the pure, mind-expanding magic of watching the band nail the apocalyptic folk ballad “Morning Dew” in London in 1972. There are also at least two moments in the film, which came out on Amazon earlier this summer, in which members of the band sit around huffing nitrous through a tube. How fortunate that someone thought to hit record on both occasions, and that the film’s director, Amir Bar-Lev, had the presence of mind to include both of them, perhaps realizing how the two scenes capture the easy coexistence of eschatological gravity and drug-fueled looseness that explains the Dead’s special place in American culture.
And Jewish-American culture, too. “This story is about a kibbutz,” said Bar-Lev, himself the Berkeley-raised grandchild of Marxist kibbutzniks. “Ultimately they have a vision for the world that’s a collectivist vision, and the Grateful Dead certainly have that too.” The kibbutz parallel comes from the Dead’s sense of community, fostered across Dead fandom and within the band’s scores of traveling staff members. But also, within the Dead’s inner circle, there were “the hangers-on and the interminable meetings. It’s totally a kibbutz.”
The Dead are exalted and earthy in a way that American Jews are still drawn to, regardless of their religiosity, and regardless of whether they even saw the band play. Dead rhythm guitar player Bob Weir liked saying that the band, a group of dweeby-looking music nerds who sold out football stadiums for the decade leading up to frontman Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, were driven by “misfit power.” “In a sense, Judaism is also about misfit power, feeling you’re different from people around you,” said Steve Silberman, author of Neurotribes and writer of the liner notes for several Grateful Dead releases. “Or at least you can turn the pain of your perpetual exile into something transcendent. That’s something that both Jews and Deadheads have.”
Deadheadism is a quintessential late-20th-century American Jewish phenomenon. Silberman believes that the Jewish attraction to the band resulted from the utter meaninglessness of suburban life in the 1970s and ’80s—a spiritually desiccated existence that American modes of Judaism were powerless to improve upon. “Going to Dead shows was the first experience of being in a community where large philosophical questions were in play in a way that wasn’t hollow or hypocritical,” Silberman recalled. Dead shows could summon forces “that transcended any individual human life.” The band’s fans were “a community of people who were spiritually questing but weren’t provided any glib, prefabricated answers. For my generation of Jewish kids, that was really attractive.” That quest could sometimes lead places other than Judaism: Both Silberman and Bar-Lev said that loving the Dead eventually led them to forms of Buddhist practice.
Douglas Gertner posits a similar hypothesis to Silberman’s in an essay that appeared in Perspectives on the Grateful Dead, a 1999 collection about the band. “Most Jewish baby boomers were born into a void,” Gertner writes, and Judaism didn’t offer them a way out. Along came the Dead.
Not so simple, said Leora Lawton, a University of California professor who believes that she may have been the only professional academic demographer following the Dead around in the early 1980s. “I actually wanted to do a dissertation on Grateful Dead subculture,” she said, recalling her time as a doctoral student at Brown University. “I was advised not to do it or I’d lose all my funding.”
As an observant Jew, a committed Deadhead, and an academic social scientist, Lawton is uniquely qualified to interrogate Jewish Deadheadery as a social phenomenon, which she did in a paper titled “Jewish Deadheads: A Cultural Demographic Study” published in the March 2015 edition of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. According to her analysis, Jews were attracted to the band thanks to what she described to me as “a sociological perfect storm.” She writes:
The disproportionate presence of Jews in the music industry, and the status of Jewry entering into the American experience of the 1960s converged in a way that allowed the Jews in the nascent Grateful Dead subculture to take a formative role. Jews were able to find a place for themselves in the Grateful Dead, just as they were able to find a place for themselves in many other aspects of American life. Thus, the result was a subculture that was comfortable for Jews because, to a certain degree, they shaped it.
The satirical, anonymous author of Thoughts on the Dead (tagline: “Musings on the most ridiculous band I can’t stop listening to”) buys the hard sociological explanation for Jewish attraction to the band. “Everybody else is gonna give you the mystical/magical version, and I guarantee that the Talmud will be brought into this, but I think the answer (not that there’s only one answer, but you get my drift) is more prosaic,” he wrote to me. “The Dead played the Northeast a lot, and—at least starting out—they played a lot of colleges. Can’t throw a rock at a Northeast college without hitting a Jew. Boring old socioeconomics and demographics.” If Jews were looking for spiritual experience in the Dead, they were disproportionately represented among the socio-economic cohort that had the opportunity and the awareness to chase transcendence in the form of a traveling rock act. “A lot of the counter-culture people were basically kind of middle-class urban-types who ended up connected because they actually had the means and resources to do it,” said Shaul Magid, an ordained rabbi and a professor of Jewish and religious studies at Indiana University who was also present for the Dead’s legendary performance on the grounds of Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey on Sept. 3, 1977.
It’s one thing to ask why Jews are attracted to the Dead. That’s a social and historical question, one to which scholars like Magid and Lawton must apply a demystifying academic rigor. Luckily, the inverse to the question invites some wonderfully free-floating answers, even from the academics themselves: What’s Jewish about the Dead and their scene? Lawton’s paper contains a number of possible answers, including one that only a Jewish Deadhead who was present at the October 1978 Winterland Ballroom run could write:
Consider the following description of a musical event. There would be a large gathering of thousands of people to hear music played. People would come for miles around and it was said that there was room for everyone. The drumming set the rhythm, inducing a meditative transformative state. Then the rest of the instruments started playing, the stringed instruments and the horns, and people would dance and sing for hours. The lyrics were deeply meaningful. And it is said that one who never experienced one of these musical events, was someone who had never truly experienced joy. Such a musical event evokes a Grateful Dead concert experience, yet it was the holiday worship services during the time of the Holy Temple.
There are kabbalistic echoes in some of the band’s lyrics: The dark star “pouring its light into ashes” in “Dark Star,” or the wheel in “The Wheel.” “My Brother Esau” turns one of the Tanach’s most morally vexing episodes into an extended metaphor for the doomed 1969 Altamont festival, which the Dead wisely bailed on playing. But there’s nothing in the Dead that’s as specifically Jewish as what a tuned-in listener would find in Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan’s catalog. As Lawton states in her paper, the Jewish character of the Dead is partly a product of the Jews themselves. “Jews could be culturally comfortable in Deadhead culture because it was familiar,” she writes. And as her evocation of the Temple service suggests, they could be “culturally comfortable” for deeper reasons, too.
For certain Jewish Dead fans, the band is perfectly explained within a Judaic idiom. “If you want to put it in really Jewish terms you could say that tefilah is keavah for most Jews: the fixed rigid part of spirituality. Going to a Dead show is the kavanah—the spiritual ecstasy,” said Simeon Cohen, who had a life-changing experience at a 2003 Bob Weir concert at the Beacon Theatre and was recently ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary. (He also wrote an excellent essay about Jews and the jam-band scene for the Columbia Current, longer ago than either of us cared to admit.)
Yaakov Block, a writer and musician who used to play in Ta’Shma Orchestra, a Jewish-inspired jam band, said that after discovering the Dead during an angst-y freshman semester at Yeshiva University in the early 2000s, “100% of the music that I listened to for the next 5 years was only the Grateful Dead, and only from the years 1969 to 1977.” Block recalled Abraham Isaac Kook explaining why the band seized him as powerfully as it did. “Rav Kook said that God desired to create the world, and it was created; therefore the most godly thing that we do in this world is create. It’s the job of every Jew to be a writer or a painter or a musician in order to cultivate that expressive voice from within them.” At a Phish or a Grateful Dead show, he claimed, “there’s something Godly going on.”
Points of overlap between Jews and the Dead are too numerous for coincidence to explain away: Bill Graham, the promoter who staged many of the Dead’s most legendary shows, was born Wolf Grajonca and came to the United States from Germany at the age of 8 to escape the Holocaust. Mandolin player Dave Grisman, a frequent Jerry Garcia collaborator, played “Shalom Aleichem” at the beloved frontman’s 1995 funeral. The Dead’s road crew was Jewish enough that they would host a backstage Passover Seder, where drummer Mickey Hart (born Michael Hartman) would put in a brief appearance. Lawton recalled Hanukkah candle lightings in the parking lot of the Oakland Coliseum. Yosef Gros, a founder of Hedgehog Entertainment, a New York-based Jewish-focused jam-band promoter, said his company had worked with two musicians who had played with both high-level Grateful Dead tribute acts and Shlomo Carlebach—the “singing rabbi” who served as a living bridge between Judaism and the counterculture.
Carlebach used music to show how seemingly-staid Jewish practice could become transcendently joyful. The Dead accomplished something similar, lifting their believers to ecstatic heights night after night, through tour after tour. “In a certain sense, a Grateful Dead concert was about celebration,” Shaul Magid said. “The notion of celebration manifested in Hasidism fits very nicely with the Grateful Dead culture.”
If Bob Dylan was the prophet of 1960s musical culture, then Jerry was its Hasidic rebbe, Magid said. Magid recalled Garcia’s advice to a forlorn Dylan during the 1986 “Dylan and the Dead” tour, a year that marked rock-bottom for both acts: “Jerry said, ‘Go out every day and do the same thing, but do it differently.’ You can see that in any Hasidic text. In some ways, that’s the Hasidic interpretation of halacha.”
Contact with the Dead could push fans’ understanding of their own spirituality in a direction that sometimes led them deeper into Judaism. That was the case with Shaul Wertheimer, who is now the Chabad rabbi at Queens College. Seeing Phish and the Dead live “opened my mind to the possibility of true, solid spirituality,” he said.
There’s plenty in the Grateful Dead experience that a searching Jew might recognize. As any initiate knows, the shows themselves are a kind of ceremony, a ritual of growth and experience, organized within a flexible but nevertheless predictable series of structural markers: the first-set tune-ups, the second set drums and space, the paraboloid journey from folksiness to maximal weirdness and then back to clarity that characterized the final third of most Dead performances. As in Judaism, the ceremonies are points on a vast mystical and historical canvas—particularly nowadays, when many Jewish Dead fans are too young to have seen the band perform. Amir Bar-Lev said that the band’s entire view of reality revolved around the “exploding now”: the sublimity of living a moment that can never really be recaptured. Today’s younger Deadheads, who must satisfy themselves with incomplete or imitative simulacra of The Real Thing, are chasing something more like an irrecoverable “then”—just as the Jewish people have been for most of their history. “It comes down one generation at a time that our people are a little displaced, and that we’re trying to bring ourselves together through years of wandering,” Richard Davies, Yosef Gros’s partner at Hedgehog, said. “In everyone’s heart, they just want to be able to see their own people together celebrating as one.”
Jews, like the latter-day Deadhead, crave what’s out of reach, and then find meaning in their unfulfillable collective yearnings: Revelation’s over, but the Talmud will have to do. The Dead are gone in their original form, but Gros and Davies, whose company grew out of a “Heady Jew Tribe” Facebook group, have put on shows that preserve the band’s spirit, often involving Jewish musicians playing in front of heavily Jewish audiences. In Bar-Lev’s view, distance from the source is actually one paradoxical reason for the Grateful Dead’s endurance: “It has to end in order to go on forever,” he said.
Inevitably, there are aspects of Judaism and the Dead that can’t be reconciled—and probably shouldn’t be. Simeon Cohen admits that he keeps his Jewish and jam-band personas “hermetically sealed from one another,” even if one fills in spiritual and intellectual gaps in the other. Perhaps separateness is a good thing: for some believers in rock or God or both, raising a rock band to the level of a religion sullies and demeans what’s essential in both of them. Bar-Lev’s film often documents the at-times unhealthy relationship between the band and its legions of dedicated fans: at one point, we learn that Jerry Garcia never bantered onstage because he was afraid of his own power over the crowd. One of the Dead’s first songs is “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” a psychedelic lightning strike that the band almost never played live. For some Deadheads, devotion verged into obsession, and they spurred their heroes onward with an inevitably tragic momentum—in the film’s most cathartic moment, bassist Phil Lesh acknowledges that the Dead might have been able to save an ailing Jerry, who died of drug-related causes in 1995, if they’d decided to stop touring in the mid-’90s.
There’s another reason for keeping Judaism and Deadism separate. Wertheimer, the Chabad rabbi, recalled a 1964 letter from the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, discussing the use of LSD. Perhaps unexpectedly, the Rebbe didn’t deny that spiritual elevation was possible on the drug. Instead, he argued that for Jews, ecstatic experience shouldn’t come that easily. “Jews always require avodah,” said Wertheimer. “We require a personal effort, a personal striving, and it has to come through what I accomplish with my own sweat.” Phish and the Grateful Dead had led Wertheimer to profound spiritual highs, but he began to realize they were fleeting and seamless to access—and thus slightly hollow, maybe even deceptive. Wertheimer doesn’t go to Phish or Dead-related shows anymore. “Judaism is hard. It’s really, really difficult,” he said. “It demands so much of us if we’re really trying to live up to it.”
You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.