FALLS VILLAGE, Conn. (JTA) — As a gentle snow fell on the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center last Friday evening, some 85 people gathered inside a wooden lodge to welcome Shabbat — half in a meditation circle in which Grateful Dead lyrics served as a kind of mantra, the other in a more "traditional" service where the Lecha Dodi prayer was sung to the tune of the Dead classic "Ripple."
It was the second installment of Blues for Challah, a weekend retreat that attracts dozens of Jewish Deadheads — or "grown-up hippies retracing their past," as one participant described the scene — to this placid corner of the Connecticut countryside to bask in their collective love and reverence for the Grateful Dead.
Over the course of two days, a colorful sea of devotees — clad, unsurprisingly, in tie-dye, hemp and oversized knit yarmulkes — munched on organic food, swapped stories of their days following the Dead and tripping on acid, and of course, jammed.
"The Dead was a traveling band, they were always picking up and moving," Yoseph Needelman, a Deadhead from Jerusalem and the author of a book about the use of marijuana by Chasidic rabbis, told JTA. "Their songs always talk about a road, a path, or driving to get back on a journey. That directly relates to a Jewish journey of traveling to find the right path, and the Chasidic concept of this world being a passageway. Jews and the Dead relate in that we both wander."
A product of the 1960s San Francisco counterculture, the Grateful Dead inspired a fanatical loyalty from fans drawn as much by their music as the traveling carnival of seekers and misfits that followed them from venue to venue and obsessively trafficked in bootlegged recordings of their performances.
Though it’s been nearly 20 years since the death of Jerry Garcia, the band’s frontman and creative force, the Dead continues to be a cultural and commercial force — especially for the disproportionately large number of Deadheads who happen to be Jews.
"As Jews, we’re always searching for a sense of community and acceptance, and being in the Grateful Dead scene was a way to be yourself with no judgments, since the crowd is so diverse," said Arthur Kurzweil, the author, Jewish educator, magician and Deadhead who was the weekend’s keynote speaker. "That old balding guy dancing next to you whose big belly is covered with a tie-dye shirt will go back to his job tomorrow as a banker. But at a Dead show, it doesn’t matter what he does."
Kurzweil isn’t the only one who has wondered about those burly Deadheads. In "Perspectives of the Dead," a collection of scholarly essays about the band published in 1999, Douglas Gertner noted how many Garcia lookalikes attended shows — "big men with thick dark curly hair and beards." Only later does Gertner realize that these bearded men are, like him, members of an "extended community" of Jewish Deadheads.
Understanding the intense loyalty inspired by the Dead is a plaguing existential question that echoes through every Jewish Deadhead’s mind at some point or another. Since its earliest days, Jews have been important figures in the scene that grew up around the band.
The legendary music promoter Bill Graham, an early champion of the Dead, was a German-born Jewish refugee from the Nazis. Mandolinist David Grisman was a longtime collaborator, contributing the signature mandolin part on the studio version of "Ripple." Les Kippel was an early pioneer in the trading of live recordings and the founder of Relix magazine, a newsletter for traders.
"Going to a show is kind of like going to a family simcha," said the 65-year-old Kippel, who now works for an auction house in Florida. "You knew everyone there and you felt like you belonged. It made me feel like I needed to connect with everyone around me and get everyone involved who wasn’t there."
Kippel spent some 15 years taping Dead shows and created the First Free Underground Grateful Dead Tape Exchange in 1973 to help circulate the recordings among fans. He would organize people to bring recording equipment, both to split the costs and confuse security guards — "sort of the same way a kibbutz operates," he said.
"It went from a simple act of wanting to preserve the experience to collecting it, which reminded me a lot of how we preserve Judaism," Kippel said. "Our ancestors cherish our past and we try to preserve it, which is why Jewish Deadheads are obsessed with preserving the shows. We were a family gathering."
Only one member of the band, Mickey Hart, is Jewish. And unlike Phish, the jam band that most closely followed in the Dead’s endlessly touring, live tape-trading ways, the Dead never worked Hebrew classics like "Avinu Malkeinu" into its concert repertoire. But for many Jews, attending shows was akin to a religious experience and the band’s lyrics contain powerful spiritual messages.
"The Baal Shem Tov taught that the way you look at things throughout your day can be an expression in the way you relate to God," Yosef Langer said. "I was blown away when I found that exact concept in the Dead’s ‘Scarlet Begonias’ song when they sing, ‘Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.’ "
Langer, who has worked as a Chabad emissary in the San Francisco Bay Area since the 1970s, got help from Graham to place a 25-foot mahogany menorah in the middle of the city for Chanukah in 1974, a ritual that persists to this day. In the 1980s, Langer spearheaded a "Grateful Yid" movement in which he set up a table at shows beneath a giant sign that read "POT."
"They later learned our sign meant Put On Tefillin," Langer said.
Deadheads, Jewish and non, bring a Talmudist’s eye to the band’s lyrics, most of them the work of lyricist Robert Hunter.
"Eyes of the World," from the band’s 1973 album "Wake of the Flood," contains messages "about how my behavior in this world is reflected onto others, and how I can reflect divinity," said Leah Chava Reiner, a 52-year-old from Massachusetts whose embrace of her Jewish roots initially manifested through listening to the Dead.
"He’s come to take his children home," a line from one of the band’s best-known songs, "Uncle John’s Band," is a reference to the ingathering of the tribes, according to Moshe Shur, one of the leaders of the retreat weekend.
"There’s something about the music that is so beautiful, it’s religious," said Shur, an Orthodox rabbi who got close to the band while living on a California commune in the 1970s.
"It’s funny to see the way Jews also exchange bits and information about Dead shows and songs like an encyclopedia, the way they do about Talmud, but it makes sense," said David Freelund, one of a number of rabbis who attended the retreat. "As a people, we have an intimate relationship with texts. We are the originals who study and critique text, so of course Jewish Deadheads will dissect lyrics."
But the Dead community is more than a bunch of graying hippies obsessing over musical curios and obscure lyrical references. For most attendees at the retreat, the draw is the same as the band itself. Meeting a fellow Jewish Deadhead ignites an instant bond, a feeling of family.
"The whole thing was very tribal for me," said Jonathan Siger, a rabbi from Spring, Texas. "The parking lot, where fans would surround the band and set up shop, reminds me of the way the Jews operated with the Tabernacle and the Temple. Culturally, we’ve set up camp for spiritual experiences."