Phish Phans Give Phinal Phreylach Pharewell to Band

By Laurie Hahn and Aaron J. Tapper

Published August 20, 2004, issue of August 20, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

COVENTRY, Vt. — This weekend, on the 35th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, the band Phish, arguably the kingpin of alternative rock bands of the last three decades, played its last gig.

A crowd of close to 70,000 trudged through wind, rain, mud and muck — remnants of Florida’s Hurricane Charley — for a two-day concert that symbolized the proverbial end of the neo-hippie era. And with it ended one of the most unique Jewish identity movements in popular culture.

The goodbye party began long before the concert, as legions of so-called Phish Phans, stuck in 25-mile-plus traffic jams leading to the venue, set up temporary camps while crawling along Interstate 91 slower than at a snail’s pace. Grilled cheese sandwiches and quesadillas cooked on grills from the back of pick-up trucks, card games played on collapsible picnic tables, and enough booze and smokes to transform Haman into Mordechai and back again 10 times over turned this highway into a tailgate party the likes of which the Vermont state troopers lining the thoroughfare never had seen. All for the last time.

And with the breakup of the band, this weekend also brought to a close one of the more unusual and focused Jewish outreach efforts of this generation. Though precise figures would be impossible to ascertain, some estimate that nearly 30% of Phish fans are Jewish.

Some attribute the phenomenon to the fact that two of the band members, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman, are actively identified as Jews. More to the point, the band has been known to include such Jewish classics as Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and Avinu Malkeinu in its repertoire — in its own unique musical form, of course.

Others point to Phish’s unique music as driving the trend, more than to those who produce it. Gordon himself once posited in an interview that Phish’s music, like its fans, is fundamentally analytical — a feature, he said, that speaks to Jews.

“Phish’s jam band music is about questions, not answers, just like the Talmud,” said Shmuel Skaist, known to Phans as Rav Shmuel, who is the most famous rabbi on the Phish scene. He added that on a subconscious level the group’s music is about the knowledge that “each time you think you’ve found the answer, you instead find a new question.”

In 1998, Skaist founded Gefiltefish, which he called “more of an idea than an official organization.” He has traveled to Phish concerts conducting a hands-off form of Jewish outreach to “give people a sense of pride in their identity as Jews, encouraging Jews to find meaning in their lives,” he said. At times, Skaist has shared traditional rituals with Jewish fans, such as the 500-person, all-day kiddush he set up at the two-day Oswego festival in the summer of 1999. More frequently, though, he has focused his energy on forming connections with fans through conversation. Talks cover an array of topics, from the level of energy of Phish’s last set list to an individual’s relationship to God.

In fact, Skaist has picked up on a long tradition of fishing, as it were, for Jewish souls at music venues. The practice goes back more than 40 years to the work of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the “Singing Rabbi.” Carlebach spent years “returning” disaffected Jews to Jewish observance. He took his outreach and his music to places where few rabbis had gone before — to cafés, bars and music clubs. Roaming from San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district to New York City’s Greenwich Village, Carlebach hung out with countless “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘N’ Roll” hippies. Along the way he found time to jam along with music icons such as Bob Dylan.

Like Carlebach’s wanderings, PhishPhandom has spread far and wide. It stretches all the way to Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street, where one can find Phish T-shirts written in Hebrew, such as the one worn by Ben Freeman at Conventry. Freeman, 19, of Toronto, bought his shirt recently during a Birthright Israel trip. Although this was his first Phish concert, he had been listening to their music since he was 10. His first exposure was at Camp Walden, a Jewish summer camp in Ontario. A group of 25 Jewish fellow campers were with him at Coventry.

When they arrived, Freeman and his friends and thousands of others were confronted with the carnival-like atmosphere of the Phish Phest phenomenon. Inside the main campgrounds, in an area called the Commons, Phish enthusiasts could sample delicacies from Vermont’s phinest pharmers, enjoy an old-fashioned traveling medicine show, or peruse a variety of garments and other wares offered by local artists and Phish camp followers. Alternatively, individuals could journey through the concert’s main area and dance through some Seussian Truffula trees, climb on the backs of metal moose or ride in a hot-air balloon.

Dan Gelbtuch, 23, from West Roxbury, Mass., also began listening to Phish while attending a Jewish summer camp, Camp Yavneh in Northwood, N.H. Gelbtuch came to the concert with close to a dozen friends from Yavneh, including one of his former counselors, Daniel Klein, 26, one of the first to turn Gelbtuch on to the band. The Yavneh entourage included the Jacobs sister trio — Joy, 26; Melissa, 22, and Elana, 17 — all of whom went the distance as Yavneh campers. This was the first concert the sisters attended together.

Joy Jacobs has been attending Phish gigs since she was a freshman in high school. Her sister Melissa followed in tow a few years later. According to Melissa, Phish’s “Jewish vibe” isn’t more important to her than the music. Still, she concedes, many of the friends who have joined her at Phish concerts over the years have, in fact, been Jews — including scores from the Yavneh scene. At Coventry the Yavneh crew welcomed Sabbath together with Friday night Kiddush and Motzi prayers.

To be sure, Jewish groups are not alone in conducting outreach at Phish concerts. Members of non-Jewish religious traditions, from the Hare Krishna’s to the Twelve Tribes, often are seen at events. The latter is a new religious movement that began its concert outreach in 1988 while following the Grateful Dead, moving into the Phish scene in the early 1990s. The Twelve Tribes, or the Peacemakers, as many among them like to be called, maintain a belief in the “true teachings” of Jesus or Yahshua (their rendering of Jesus’ name in Aramaic).

Whether they came to Conventry to pray with Rav Shmuel, to hang with members of the Twelve Tribes or to rock out with Phish for one last time, the one thing Phans agreed on was that Phish’s “long, strange trip” had come to an end. Through emotional goodbye sobs in the concert’s final sets, the band members offered thanks for their fans’ devotion. They closed it with a rendition of one of the first tunes they ever played together, “The Curtain.”

Perhaps Phish put their phinal pharewell best through lyrics from one of the last songs they played Sunday night, “Down With Disease”: “Waiting for the time when I can finally say, this has all been wonderful, but now I’m on my way.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.