My mother loved a party. In fact, my mother was a party! She loved art and theater and literature, and subcultures of the high and lowbrow varieties; she fled her parents’ strict home at 22 to find herself in swinging London, looking the part in Twiggy eyeliner and a mod haircut. It changed the course of her life — and mine, since that’s where she met my father.
At 22, I too, had a life-altering experience when I attended Phish’s Lemonwheel festival with my sister and a few other friends. I’d seen the band several times by then, but this was different. The experience Phish crafted for attendees was completely immersive. Whatever was happening outside the festival grounds, which had been transformed from an Air Force Base, into an interactive art installation complete with a pagoda built from Port-a-Potties, and an operational Ferris wheel, not only didn’t matter, it felt as if it ceased to exist. This was an odd, new feeling — being part of this makeshift and temporary city of 60,000 people brought together to celebrate and appreciate this liminal and holy space, both as a community and as individuals. It was powerful and disorienting.
Decades later, I inhabited another liminal space. It was my mom’s house, but, for the first and forever time, without my mom. Again, I was with my sister. Again, the outside world didn’t matter. It was as if a funhouse mirror was held up to the festival grounds, distorting joy into grief — instead of multiple sets a day of live music, we marked the start of a year without live music, which feels like forever in COVID times.
My love for and connection to Phish is intrinsically linked to my Judaism, and has marked Jewish lifecycle events since I was first introduced to the band at Camp Ramah Palmer around the time I should have been starting to prepare for my bat mitzvah. The first bootleg cassette I owned was Great Woods ‘93, with Yerushalayim Shel Zahav smack in the middle of a killer second set. It still gives me chills. Even my mother who dismissed most of the band’s repertoire as “cacophonous noise” agreed that it was beautiful.
I listened to “Divided Sky” on my way to the mikveh before I was married, and a friend called out “play it Leo!” during birkat hamazon at my son’s Leo’s bris. (I explained the origin of the phrase to my parents, or tried to: “Trey, Phish’s lead singer, yells this out when he wants Page, the band’s keyboardist, to go wild.” My parents didn’t get it. They were just happy it made me happy.) So it makes sense by my internal logic that this lifecycle event, the week of my mom’s shiva, would feel very much akin to the way Lemonwheel had — a new experience that I knew would change me forever, though I wasn’t sure how.
I’m still learning.
A shiva house is a liminal space of metamorphosis. You’re there for a finite amount of time, during which you know, in theory, what’s on the schedule each day, but the moments between minyans, between the shiva calls and the endless pastries are where a lot of the deeper stuff happens. Phish festivals are the same way.
Here are 18, chai, a lifetime, of ways that Sitting Shiva is like attending a Phish Festival:
1) You lose track of how many brownies you’ve eaten.
2) It’s handy to always have a tissue in your pocket. For the port-a-potties, or for the sudden tears that catch you off guard.
3) There aren’t any mirrors, and it doesn’t matter what your hair looks like.
4) There’s a lot of junk food, and also a lot of fruit, and you’re not really sure who brought what.
5) There are three sets/services each day, each with a call and response part.
6) The tunes are familiar, you’ve heard them all your life, but the words feel strange in your mouth and you might flub a few.
7) You don’t shower. (We’re all in this together/and we’d love to take a bath)
8) No matter how well you think you’ve prepared, you’re not prepared.
9) You’re barefoot a lot.
10) It’s exhausting, mentally and physically.
11) You reminisce a lot about other times the family (phamily) has spent this much time together.
12) You reconnect with old friends you haven’t seen in years.
13) It’s helpful to have someone who isn’t in an altered state (mourning) around as a guide, to support those affected.
14) Apart from being on time for each set/service, it doesn’t really matter what time it is.
15) It’s a shared experience that everyone present experiences a little differently.
16) You sit on the ground rather than a chair.
17) It’s important to stay hydrated.
18) You tell/hear the same stories you’ve told/heard a billion times before, but it feels right, and comforting.
19) It’s useful to have a buffer day between the end of it and when you’re due back at work.
Sylvie Shaffer is a school librarian and children’s literature scholar. She served on the Association for Jewish Libraries’ 2019 and 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Awards Committees, as well as on American Library Services for Children’s 2018 Geisel Committee.
19 reasons why shiva is like a Phish concert