Grateful Jews find community, tradition with the Grateful Dead

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Wandering. Bearded. Prone to mystical passions and ecstatic dancing. The Grateful Dead and its fans have a lot in common with the Jews.

Now the Dead’s final three performances are coming up this weekend at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Their last Bay Area shows in Santa Clara last weekend were marked by a mythically evocative double rainbow over Levi’s Stadium mid-set on Saturday night.

And Jewish Dead fans at home and abroad are reconnecting with a uniquely American experience that has woven new strands into their cultural tradition.

New strands? Indeed: Reverential appreciation of the Dead’s music, lyrics and communal experience has inspired multi-day, Grateful Dead-themed Jewish retreats; a growing body of critical writing exploring everything from folklore to Talmudic correlations with Dead lyrics; and a worldwide diaspora of followers forever seeking a return to a shared home of the heart and soul.

Although of the Dead’s members only their longtime percussionist Mickey Hart is Jewish — in fact, he’s the only band member to have played a show in Israel — the band’s Jewish connections run deep, perhaps deepest of all through legendary concert promoter Bill Graham.

A childhood Holocaust survivor raised in the Bronx, Graham brought his New York street smarts to San Francisco as the ’60s spirit was rising, and quickly became indispensable to the burgeoning live music scene of the times.

Graham ended up changing the music industry, and created a live-music machine that set the stage for the Dead’s decades of touring. Fans can learn more about his Jewish life (which included launching and underwriting the annual menorah lighting in San Francisco’s Union Square), and his life in music, at a retrospective exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles through October 11.

Today, the menorah tradition lights up a new community at Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s San Rafael venue, Terrapin Crossroads. Lesh, a non-Jew, hosted his second menorah lighting in December 2014, as well as his first Passover seder in 2015 — both leading into hours of live music and dancing.

Among fans, the passion of music and the fascination of text has led to a cottage industry of scholars, archivists, lay students, community organizers and even rabbis, all intent on going deeper into their shared experience as Jews and Deadheads.

Consider an essay in Relix, a fan magazine founded and published by Jews, that explores parallels between Torah verse and Grateful Dead song lyrics. In the article’s comments section one “Rabbi Levi” even noted the use of a niggun — a repetitive vocal phrase sung by groups — at the conclusion of “Ripple,” the sing-along acoustic classic off the band’s seminal Americana record “American Beauty.”

“[E]asily the Dead’s most spiritually accessible song!” the self-identified rabbi exclaims.

Similar attention to detail can be found in blogs such as Open Siddur, which published a four-column chart comparing Jewish sacred texts with Grateful Dead lyrics, mostly by the non-Jewish poet Robert Hunter.

Even the name of the band has Jewish links — to an ancient folk tale of a good citizen who pays a dead man’s debts, enabling a formal burial, and earning the benevolent intervention of the thankful ghost in a time of need.

But being Jewish, and a Dead fan, involves more than study. Ingatherings and shared experience are at the heart of both cultures.

Thus, in Missouri, the St. Louis Jewish community debuted a three-day retreat at a local campground, “Unleavened Dead,” last September.

The happening was funded in part by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and featured live music, yoga, camping, Shabbat services, and a set of Dead-themed breakout sessions, including “Eyes Of The World: Kabbalah And Jewish Mysticism In Conversation With The Dead” and “Considering The Grateful Part: A Four Worlds Gratitude Workshop.”

The event followed on the heels of Hazon’s “Blues for Challah,” a five-year-old weekend retreat in Connecticut with a similar focus on “the correlation between Jewish faith, community, history, and spirituality and the Grateful Dead.” The next editition is coming up this December, friends.

The Dead’s songs have even been translated into Hebrew. No surprise, as Israel is full of Deadheads, many of whom will be making the voyage to Chicago for this weekend’s final shows.

The phenomenon of Jewish Deadheads — there are legions of them — also inspired an extensively annotated scholarly essay, “Why Are There So Many Jewish Deadheads?” that touches on everything from tribal living to Eastern European shtetls to the sociology of the “Jewish Cowboy.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Grateful Dead’s true promised land, the music and community of the Summer of Love continues to have its ripple effect.

An essay in the Atlantic revealed that Sally Oren, wife of Israel’s former ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, was a teenage friend of the band and used to play Frisbee with guitarist Bob Weir in Golden Gate Park.

And the Chabad movement’s bike-riding emissary to the Bay Area, Rabbi Yosef Langer, is notable both for his work with Bill Graham establishing the “Mama Menorah” tradition in San Francisco’s Union Square, and for his “Grateful Yid” table at Dead concerts in the 1980s.

A recent article on “the secret Jewish history of the Grateful Dead” will take you even deeper into the study of ancient lore — but after this weekend’s historic final concerts in Chicago, you can bet that fans Jewish and otherwise will make sure that the traditions stay alive, and the music never stops.