What a Long, Strange Shabbat It's Been

Grateful Dead Fans Gather, Tie-Died Yarmulkes and All

Jewish Grateful Dead fans celebrating the Havdalah during the Blues for Challah retreat at the Isabella Freedman Center in Falls Village, Conn., Dec. 1, 2012.
JTA/Chavie Lieber
Jewish Grateful Dead fans celebrating the Havdalah during the Blues for Challah retreat at the Isabella Freedman Center in Falls Village, Conn., Dec. 1, 2012.

By JTA

Published December 04, 2012.
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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.”


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