Pickin’ and grinnin’ at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass on Yom Kippur

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Eleven months ago, when organizers of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival posted the dates for this year’s festival on Facebook, one user simply and astutely noted: “This is the weekend of Yom Kippur.”

The festival runs from Oct. 3 through Oct. 5. Yom Kippur begins with Kol Nidre on the evening of Oct. 3 and concludes with Neilah on the evening of Oct. 4.

“It seems strange to me, and a bit disrespectful, since [the late Warren Hellman] made so much of being Jewish,” said Carol Langbort of San Francisco.

Crowd at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2010 photo/wikipedia

Langbort attended the Sept. 18 opening of the “Hardly Strictly Warren Hellman” exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where she said there was a lot of chatter about the 14th annual festival falling on Yom Kippur. People wondered aloud: Organizers would never schedule such a festival on Christmas or Easter, would they?

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was created and bankrolled by Hellman, a banjo-playing Jewish billionaire and philanthropist who died in 2011. Held in Golden Gate Park and featuring dozens of musicians, many of them big-name stars, the free festival draws hundreds of thousands of people to an area now named Hellman Hollow.

Tricia Gibbs, daughter of the late Hellman, said the overlap “is a tough situation without a perfect answer for everyone. It’s hard to predict what someone who is no longer with us might have done. Precedent and feasibility ultimately dictated response.”

When reached by telephone for a comment about the conflict, a Hardly Strictly Bluegrass spokeswoman referred J. to the statement on the festival’s website.

That statement reads: “A number of people have approached us recently regarding the fact that this year’s festival falls on the same weekend as Yom Kippur. When we first realized the conflict, last year, we considered other dates for the event. None were available. The festival takes over a large area of the park, so scheduling is no simple feat. Most of the staff and many of the artists work this event into their calendar, so there was only so much flexibility we had to look at other dates.

“The organizing committee met to discuss our options. While we respect the wishes of the Hellman family, the core group who manage the event made the decision. We considered reducing the scope of the festival this year, but that would have been contrary to the spirit of the event. Skipping a year was not a viable option.

Warren Hellman

“We were able to move the Hellman family set to Sunday and have activated a fourth stage on Friday so there is more music to see before the sun sets that night.

“What would Warren have done? Sadly, he is not here to ask. Most likely he would have asked us to pursue all possibilities. Our findings would have been the same. He would have reminded us that in 2003, the Sunday of our event coincided with the first evening of Yom Kippur. Above all, he would want the festival to continue no matter what. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is important to the community at large. Please come when you can and enjoy what we have to offer.

“Fortunately, it appears to us that the two events do not overlap again until 2030, when the first evening of Yom Kippur occurs once again on Sunday.”

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass traditionally is scheduled for the first weekend in October. Every so often, that’s going to create a conflict with Yom Kippur; other overlaps will occur in 2033, 2041, 2044 and 2055, assuming the festival continues that long.

“It’s as inevitable as the rotations of the sun and the moon,” said Gibbs, alluding to the secular calendar vs. the Jewish lunar calendar. “Since the festival is always the first weekend in October, they [Yom Kippur and the festival] are going to intersect from time to time — although I certainly recognize that it’s a serious holiday and not something to be glibly overlooked.”

The organizers ran the community’s concerns, and their solution, past Gibbs, who went through a b’nai mitzvah ceremony with her father at Congregation Emanul-El in 2009. She was 50 at the time, he 75. Hellman had a secular upbringing and early adulthood, but later in life found comfort in Jewish spirituality and Torah.

Gibbs said she is “very happy with how event organizers handled it,” including honoring her idea to move her family’s traditional performance to Oct. 5 (she’ll be in synagogue on Oct. 4). She also said she’s excited about this years’ lineup and a three-day attendance figure that has been approaching 1 million people in recent years. “It’s such an amazing thing,” she said.

Freelance reporter Max A. Cherney contributed to this report.