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.”