Last week, on a misty Thursday night in Brooklyn, The Promised Land, the world’s first and only Hebrew-language tribute to the Grateful Dead, wrapped up their three-night U.S. tour in what would seem like the exact opposite of Giants Stadium or Watkin’s Glen: a spacious (and astoundingly clean!) Brooklyn basement, with a low ceiling and a washer-dryer occupying a far corner. For a Dead fan, the unusually do-it-yourself setup recalled a classic lyric, one that The Promised Land hasn’t gotten around to translating into Hebrew just yet: “Everybody’s dancin’ down the local armory / With a basement full of dynamite and live artillery / The temperature keeps risin’, everybody gittin’ high / Come the rockin’ stroke of midnight, the whole place gonna fly!”
But would it? Could the Dead fly—in Hebrew?
Early signs were promising. A couple hours before the show started, one fan told Khen Rotem, the Israeli rapper who goes by the stage name Sagol 59 and The Promised Land’s founder, frontman, and lyricist, that he had been at their concert at Garcia’s at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, the night before. “My neshama was so high last night,” Rotem’s admirer said. This was the rare concert where everyone within earshot knew exactly what he meant. (To boot, the tour is the work of Hedgehog Entertainment, which is perhaps New York’s only Jewish-focused jam band promoter.)
The Promised Land’s album of Hebrew-language Dead covers, which came out in April of 2015, was recorded in Jaffa, in one of those reinforced above-ground bomb shelters found in many Israeli apartment buildings—about as sound-proofed a space as you can find without having to shell out for professional studio time. Israel is a small country, and the distance between someone’s home bomb shelter and national radio isn’t that far: “Chever HaSatan,” Rotem’s version of “Friend of the Devil,” got some play on Galgalatz, Israel’s ubiquitous army-run radio station—the programmers, Rotem says, didn’t even realize the song was a cover.
The Grateful Dead were a mind-expanding live experience, with Jerry Garcia’s guitar screaming into a quarter-century of summer nights, pretty much right up until his death in August of 1995. While American Jews have a longstanding love affair with the Dead, the band is largely unknown to Israelis, who have little exposure to American jam culture. Rotem, a skilled guitarist who still mostly works in hip-hop, got into the Dead because his girlfriend had seen them over 200 times when growing up in San Francisco. “And when you live with a Deadhead, there’s no escape,” Rotem said, accurately. Most Israelis haven’t had that distinct privilege. “People think they’re a heavy metal band or a death metal band or a punk band because of all the skull imagery. They don’t know.”
Rotem’s project isn’t about reliving the Dead. He didn’t hold out the prospect of a millionth crack at “I Know You Rider.” The Promised Land promises something totally new: The Dead as you’ve never heard them before, and may never hear them again.
Their show was my first shot at hearing “Ani Yodeah” (“I Know You Rider”) or “Chever HaSatan” (“Friend of the Devil.”). For the first time, “shake it, shake it, sugaree” became “sheket (quiet), sheket, Sugaree,” a switch that emphases the song’s theme of tortured secret-keeping. “Zman” (time) rhymes with “HaSatan” (Satan) in the crucial central couplet of “Friend of the Devil,” which is now about a prison escape from Ramle, in central Israel. In “Bertha,” “Test me, test me/Why don’t you arrest me?” turns into something more like “test me, you dangerous woman,” with a dare to “take me the jailhouse” carried over to the next line.
Rotem is one of Israel’s pioneering hip-hop artists, reportedly the first to release a solo record in Hebrew, and to collaborate with Arab rappers. He translated the Dead with the special consideration of someone for whom words are the usual musical instrument of choice. Rotem explained that he had to “balance the meaning” of the Dead’s English lyrics with the responsibility to more or less faithfully render the words themselves into Hebrew. “When you translate a song, you really get into the song itself,” he said. “You have to understand what it’s thinking about.”
He had other, more concrete guiding principles as a translator, too. “One is to leave most of the phonetics intact…so that it would be somewhat familiar to the ear,” he said. “The other is to Israelize these songs, to make them as local as possible.” He could sometimes accomplish both of these goals at once. “Hello baby, I’m gone, goodbye,” seamlessly became “Hello baby, shalom, goodbye” in the chorus to “Mississippi Half-Step.” Onstage last Thursday night, Rotem explained that he had trouble translating “Tennessee” into Hebrew when re-writing “Tennessee Jed.” Rotem’s version of the song is about Kfar HaNassi, a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee, just at the base of the Golan Heights, a region of green rolling hills that’s bucolic and remote-feeling by Israeli standards. It’s the place in Israel that’s most like Tennessee while also rhyming with Tennessee.
As well as the album turned out, and as resourceful as Rotem’s translations are, the real test of a Grateful Dead song is whether it works live. The fact that the Dead largely built their identity through their live act meant that particular songs, or even just particular iterations of songs, became part of a sonic history too vast and various for even a dedicated fan to know in full. The Dead’s most trenchant material is never quite finished revealing itself—the “Stella Blue” they played on May 13th, 1977, traverses every possible emotional and spiritual register in the space of 12 minutes, but there are hundreds of other versions of “Stella Blue” out there, and they may all mean something slightly or dramatically different at a given moment. The songs themselves have been played thousands of times, but for a true ‘Head, decades’-worth of frequent repetition hasn’t exhausted them. As Rotem explains, the best Dead songs operate on multiple levels of meaning to begin with. “‘Deal,’” he said, “can be a song about gambling and cards, or it can be about life. It can have a universal message, but also very specific.”
This gets at one of the Dead’s many Judaic echoes. My own pet theory is that American Jews love the Dead because the jam scene largely developed within a three-hour radius of the New York metropolitan area, which is where some disproportionately large number of America’s Jews also happen to live. But the sociological explanation only goes so far, and it’s just as possible that a people who have sacralized the annual reading of the exact same stories might have a special instinct for how and why something can stay vital the dozenth or hundredth time through it.
So do The Promised Land’s songs work live? Do they reach Dead-like levels of musical and spiritual expansiveness? It turns out the thrill and occasional disorientation of hearing the Dead in Hebrew is only part of the fun. Although not a small part: “Was last night real??!” a Dead devotee who joined me at the show texted the next morning. If you’ve listened to the source material a zillion times, as he and I had, hearing it played this well in a foreign language is a genuinely jarring departure. Still, you didn’t need to know a word of the Hebrew to have melted into “Mississippi Half-Step’s” long, blissed-out dissolve into “Lazy River” during the first set— the latter of which is, with a nod towards localizing the Dead’s material, now about the Jordan, a river that barely seems to have a current a lot of the time. In the second set, The Promised Land jammed out on “Mtuchati” (“Sugaree”) until they reached that dream-state where it isn’t clear who’s soloing anymore, with Rotem and lead guitarist C Lanzbom’s guitars streaking into one another, building and gathering force again whenever they threatened to settle down or fade. Although a notable number of people in the crowd seemed to know the Hebrew lyrics to “Ripple,” the show-closer ended in a wordless, nigun-like singalong, with chants of “od echad!” following as soon as the music stopped. The songs still lived and breathed—both as headily different reinventions, and as something tethered to their beloved original selves. Everyone left the basement with their neshama high, whether they thought about it in those exact terms or not.
Rotem says that this won’t be the Promised Land’s last U.S. tour—he has hopes for a West Coast swing one of these days, and then a live album, and possibly even a second album of translated Dead songs. “This project has already spun out of control,” he told me just a few moments after the show concluded. “It grows by itself.”