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.”