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Spinning with Phish at the JCC

Judaism, jam bands, and trendy fitness all come together for one sweaty, transcendent hour

Sophie Aroesty
July 27, 2017
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

Everything was dark, except for the neon colors. The stage lights, ranging from violet to orange to electric blue, were matched in luminosity only by the glow sticks on every audience member’s wrist. People headbanged fervently, getting just as lost in the drum solo as Jon Fishman was. Him and the rest of his legendary namesake band, Phish, are currently playing a 13-series run of concerts called Baker’s Dozen in New York City. But this ultimate Phish experience wasn’t happening at Madison Square Garden. It was at the JCC Manhattan, in the third floor spin studio.

“Every time they sing ‘your trip is short’ or ‘your spaceship is about to blast off,’ we’re going to jog, okay? Move into second position and get out of those saddles! Ready? GO!”

“Martian Monster” played as everyone stood up on their bikes and pedaled as hard as they could. Except for me, that is. I’m a novice spinner, and also, admittedly, not a Phish fan, so what I was doing at a Phish-inspired spin class is beyond me. But after a few warm-ups, neither of those details mattered. I was getting just as lost in the rhythm and pedaling as everyone else.

Shira Kaiserman Verteramo, the Senior Director of Program Marketing and Social Media for the JCC, feels similarly. “I really don’t like spinning, but Phish makes everything better,” she said. Kaiserman Verteramo is the mastermind behind the themed class. Spin instructor Samantha Kessler enjoys a Phish concert from time to time, but isn’t as die-hard a fan as her colleague. So just like Phish and spinning, putting the two of them together created a perfect combination.

The class last Thursday felt like a real show, as we watched concert videos on a screen at the front of the studio. Kessler and Kaiserman Verteramo passed out glow sticks to everyone, and also periodically tossed beach balls in the air—classic features of any Phish concert. The other spinners also helped me believe I was in a mosh pit and not at a gym. One man next to me tucked three glow sticks into his backward-facing hat. Halfway through the class, he strung them together to create one long, neon worm, and then swung it over his head to the beat of the music. Luckily, I was not among serious spinners.

“A big part of Phish shows is the music, the people you’re with, and just having fun. I think that translates well to a spin class,” Kaiserman Verteramo said. “This isn’t a Flywheel class where you’re competing with the people next to you. It’s more like you’re having fun with the people next to you, and you’re making what you want out of it.”

Kessler agrees, but also explained another reason for attending the exercise class. “We’re here to have fun, and also to build some endurance for the 13 shows coming up,” she told me in the beginning of the class.

Some of the spinners are attending all 13 Phish shows playing from July 21 to August 6. Kaiserman Verteramo is upset that she can’t. She’s very, very pregnant. She attended the first concerts on Friday and Saturday, and during the second actually started to have contractions. Which, of course, can go on for days or even weeks, just like a Phish song. So she was still thinking about attending the Tuesday concert when we talked earlier that day. “People kept saying, ‘Don’t have your baby here, please,’ ” she laughed, referring to the Madison Square Garden staff. When asked whether she would name her baby after Phish if that were to happen, she admits that while they’re set on a name, “maybe that would change things.”

Bringing her child into the world via a Phish concert would be fitting for Kaiserman Verteramo, when the band already plays such a large role in her life. Phish was something that made her fall in love with her husband—and the band, in the process. “He took me to my first show and within five minutes I was like, ‘Okay, we’re going again tomorrow night, and we’re going again for the rest of my life,’ ” she said. “He created a monster.”

Her husband proposed as Phish’s song “Waste” played in the background, and they danced to it at their wedding—which also culminated in the band’s classic encore song, “Tweezer (Reprise).” And possibly more important than the role Phish has played in her marriage, Kaiserman Verteramo’s obsession has launched her to internet stardom. She created the Instagram @ThingsYouSeeatPhish, which has amassed 17,000 followers. When she asks fans if she can take pictures of them at concerts, they’re often familiar with her and excited to be featured.

In addition to their Director of Program Marketing’s connection to the band, it’s fitting that the Phish spin class is held at the JCC. Phish is, in a way, a very Jewish band. Jews seem to make up a large portion of their following. Drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon are Jewish, and the band has played songs like “Avinu Malkeinu” and “Yerushaliym Shel Zahav.” But even when they’re not covering prayers, Phish can be a religious experience. “A lot of people call Phish concerts their church or their synagogue,” Kaiserman Verteramo said. “I’m a Conservative Jew, and the only other time I get the same spiritual feeling that I do in synagogue during the High Holidays is at a Phish concert… Everyone in the crowd is there for the same reason. Everyone is singing along, getting lost in the music—it’s a very communal feeling.”

I’m not usually so sweaty during neilah, but the Phish spin class definitely introduced me to a different type of worship. The Phish Heads are passionate about something bigger than themselves, and feel connected to anyone who follows in the same faith. Instead of throwing bread into water like Jews do at the end of the year, we threw glow sticks around the bikes at the end of the spin class. Our cantors sang us out with “Tweezer Reprise.” “Won’t you step into the freezer…”

If you too would like to attend Phish spinning, Kesselman and Kaiserman Verteramo are hosting another class on August 3. Experience the spirituality and get in a workout. G’mar chatima tova—may you be sealed in the Book of Life, and may your trip—though short—be good.

Sophie Aroesty is an editorial intern at Tablet.