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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 Florda. “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.’ “