(New York Jewish Week) — It’s safe to assume that there were many, many Jews among the crowd at the Dead & Company’s New York City show on Wednesday evening, where thousands of fans gathered at Citi Field to hear their favorite Grateful Dead songs played live.
Among them was Rabbi David Kalb of Riverdale, who didn’t just come for the music. In conjunction with the concert, Kalb organized two Jewish prayer services inside the stadium’s Jackie Robinson Rotunda: a Mincha (afternoon) service, held before the concert began, which drew about a dozen Jewish Deadheads, and a Maariv (evening) service, which happened during the set break, which attracted about 25.
He gave participants a small siddur (prayer book) with a homemade Grateful Dead-themed cover; it was a “big hit,” said Kalb, who will be hosting services again at the band’s second Citi Field show on Thursday night.
“The narrative of my life is the texts of Judaism, and the soundtrack of my life is rock and roll — not just the Grateful Dead, but the Grateful Dead is very chief among it,” Kalb told the New York Jewish Week. “I’m interested in the intersectionality between the narrative of my life and the soundtrack of my life.”
Kalb is hardly the first Jew to explore this “intersectionality,” as he calls it, nor is he the first to host a Jewish prayer service at a Grateful Dead concert. The Jewish love affair with the music of the OG jam band is a well-documented phenomenon: In 2015, JTA covered a Shabbat service held in conjunction with the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” tour stop in Chicago, while in 2012 JTA published a dispatch from an annual Jewish Deadhead retreat, “Blues for Challah,” a riff off the Grateful Dead’s 1975 album, “Blues for Allah.”
More recently, in May 2021, Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut hosted a Grateful Dead-themed online Shabbat service.
“I often think about the connection between Jewish text and the music I listen to,” said Kalb, who has both hosted and attended minyans at other Grateful Dead and spinoff concerts. Dead & Company is the latest permutation of the band to have toured since principal songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Jerry Garcia died in 1995. “Also, the communal experience; I think these worlds have similar communal experiences. One of the things I love about Judaism is community, and the experience of being a Deadhead has a lot of communal aspects to it. I love it when those things come together as well.”
In a moving Facebook post ahead of the Dead & Company shows in Queens this week, Kalb explained that his motivation for organizing the Citi Field prayer services was to honor the memory of his mother, Felicia T. Kalb, who died last year.
Kalb’s mother, he explained, was not a Deadhead. “My parents were, quite frankly, a little square,” he said, describing them as the Jewish counterparts to “Leave it to Beaver” TV parents Ward and June Cleaver. “They weren’t the hippest people in the world. But they got that I love this [the Grateful Dead] and that was good enough for them because they loved me. They were so supportive of me.”
Kalb, who describes himself as “middle aged,” has been a fan of the Grateful Dead since the 1980s; after his first show in 1983 he saw them about 200 times. “I think they’re the finest band in the land,” he said.
Kalb’s day job is running the Jewish Learning Center of New York, an affiliate of Ohr Torah Stone, an Orthodox educational network in Israel. Following his mother’s death, he mourned her according to Jewish tradition: He said Kaddish for her three times a day, and refrained from activities like listening to music and attending festive celebrations. “Of all the laws of mourning that was toughest on me was not seeing music,” he said.
Though the Grateful Dead has had only one Jewish member, Brooklyn-born drummer Mickey Hart, the band’s Jewish connections date back to its founding in San Francisco in 1965. Most significant among them was rock impresario Bill Graham, a German-Jewish refugee who was sent to a foster home in the Bronx in 1941 at age 10. Graham later moved to San Francisco and, as the proprietor of the legendary Fillmore Auditorium (and its NYC counterpart, Fillmore East), had a huge influence on the Dead and San Francisco’s psychedelic rock scene.
“He ran it in a certain way — in my mind, with a certain Jewish ethos,” said Kalb of Graham’s clubs, pointing to Graham’s commitment to concert benefits as an example of the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
Earlier this year, in February, after his year of mourning his mother ended, Kalb caught a show by Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead, at the Capitol Theater in Westchester. “It was great seeing my kind of music again,” he said.
The experience, he emphasized, was a significant one: Not only did it inspire him to lead the minyan in honor of his mother at Citi Field, it also inspired his wife, artist Deborah Yasinsky, to create a ceramic “vessel” adorned with Jewish and Grateful Dead symbols as a Father’s Day present. “It’s my story,” he explained.
On Wednesday evening, a diverse crowd of Jews turned up to Kalb’s minyans at Citi Field: “People I would describe as Modern Orthodox, also people much more to the right in the Orthodox community,” Kalb said. “And then there were people who don’t typically go to these kinds of religious experiences, but because it was at a Dead show, they chose to come.”
One of the attendees at Wednesday’s Maariv service was Brian Resnick, a 40-something Grateful Dead fan who met Kalb years ago when he taught an introduction to Judaism class at the 92nd Street Y. They’ve been to many concerts together since. The minyan, Resnick said, “was my favorite part of the evening.”
“I think the best thing about a concert — there’s a certain spirituality,” he explained. “With the minyan, David just lifted that out in a Jewish way.”
The highlight, said Resnick, was when the group did the hora after the service concluded. “There were folks standing around, and people just joined in,” he said. “It was just so beautiful. To see different types of Jews, different types of people coming together, it really elevated the evening. It was great.”
“It’s such a communal setting, by definition,” Kalb said of praying at a Dead concert. “This is bringing what I like about Judaism, that communal experience of prayer, adding that to the communal experience of the Dead. I think it’s a beautiful thing that they’re together.”
“I love to pray and I love to be at the concert,” he said.
Those heading to Citi Field tonight will Kalb at the Jackie Robinson Rotunda at 6:30, before the show begins, and again during the set break.
As Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter wrote in “Scarlet Begonias”: “Once in a while, you get shown the light/In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”