Fans mourn Jerry, the zayde of rock

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The city that gave birth to the hippie movement of the 1960s is mourning the death of one its icons — Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia. He was 53.

Among the throngs of followers in San Francisco grieving the loss of the gray-haired guru of folk-rock are a large number of Jewish “Deadheads,” devotees of the psychedelic band. His death Wednesday, at Forest Knolls Treatment Center in Marin of a heart attack, saddened local Jewish fans.

“He was the zayde of rock ‘n’ roll,” said Rabbi Yosef Langer, a long-time Deadhead and director of Chabad House of San Francisco.

“He was a roly-poly, happy-go-lucky guy. People had an affection and a closeness they felt about Jerry Garcia. He was a kind-hearted man,” said Langer.

One might not readily associate the highly observant Chabad House with the unabashed hedonism of the Grateful Dead’s concert scene, but Bay Area Chabadniks have been attending shows and hosting concert-goers for years.

In 1991, Langer and his associates handed out 8,000 apples during a Grateful Dead concert at Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheatre. Chabad even developed “Grateful Yid Shabbos,” a Friday night dinner for Deadheads in town to see the band. To encourage Jewish fans to attend the Shabbat dinner, Langer exchanged Friday night concert tickets for Sunday tickets.

“There are thousands of Deadheads that happen to be Jewish. I think it’s because, inherently, the Jewish people have been searching, striving for a higher purpose, and it seems that the music Jerry helped create was also involved in this search,” said Langer.

Recently, Garcia allowed Chabad to use lyrics from the Grateful Dead song “Scarlet Begonias” for the Bill Graham Menorah Project, which presents the lighting of a 22-foot chanukiah in Union Square Park every Chanukah. The song says, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

Langer said the tune, which rhapsodizes that wisdom can be found in everyday events, is his favorite Grateful Dead song. The message, he adds, echoes that of the founder of Chassidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov.

“I really connected to that song. It’s really something I try to carry in front of me, in my life, because it’s a teaching of a sage, the Ba’al Shem Tov. He said if we look at everything in front of us with the right eye, no matter what it is, it can be a teaching in how one serves God, or his fellow man,” he explained.

For other Jewish fans, it wasn’t just the message in the music that was spiritually nourishing, but the music itself.

Lorin Troderman, program director of the Santa Cruz Hillel Foundation and veteran of over 100 Grateful Dead shows, said he’ll miss the experience of watching Garcia’s live performances, which have been a mainstay of the band’s activities since it formed in 1966.

“They’d be jamming a tune and Jerry would just go off on a riff, into the unknown,” Troderman said. “He took everybody with him. Everyone was riding on the notes he would play.

“There was something very orgasmic, spiritual and wonderful about it. You were riding on his fingers, on his magical strings. That’s the special part of Jerry Garcia.”

Troderman’s wife, brother and sister are also fans and have seen Garcia perform countless concerts over the years. Several months ago, Troderman even took his then 4-month-old son, Dylan, to see the band and said he’s happy his son was able to see a Grateful Dead concert before Garcia’s death.

Despite his love of their music, Troderman said his concert attendance tapered off over the years because of what he calls “the scene.”

The subculture of Deadheads has an argot, fashion sense and philosophy all its own, which sometimes includes taking and selling drugs. The parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert can be a chaotic whirl of barefoot teens in tie-dyed shirts and wide-eyed, free-form dancers on drug-induced journeys.

It’s not a situation that goes unnoticed by Langer.

“Jerry died in rehab. He was struggling with an addiction problem for years. If there’s one message I might want to pass on in his memory, for all the people that loved and adored him and were enchanted by his music, it is to stay clean and fly high,” said Langer.

While some are looking for lessons and wondering if Garcia’s death marks the end of an era, others are remembering not only the music and message, but the man.

Mill Valley Jewish musician David Grisman, one of the country’s foremost mandolin players, was a friend of the rocker for more than 30 years.

“It’s impossible to put into words the profound impact that he had on my life, both musically and spiritually,” Grisman said. “His love for and commitment to good music was one hundred percent. I’m honored and privileged to have known him, and shared so many wonderful moments.”