Behind The Scene: Ariella Werden-Greenfield and Oren Kroll-Zeldin on ‘This Is Your Song Too: Phish and Contemporary Jewish Identity’
On Wednesday, November 15, the University of San Francisco will host an event with Oren Kroll-Zeldin, Ariella Werden-Greenfield and Rabbi Joshua Ladon to discuss This Is Your Song Too: Phish and Contemporary Jewish Identity. The piece that follows appeared in the October-November issue of Relix, which was published prior to the attacks of 10/7/23.
Ariella Werden-Greenfield and Oren Kroll-Zeldin first met as undergraduates at Skidmore College. They were both Religious Studies majors who would go on to secure doctorates and later cross paths at academic conferences. Beyond their scholarly pursuits, the two shared a common musical enthusiasm for Phish.
More recently, they have melded their vocations and avocations by co-editing a new book, This Is Your Song Too: Phish and Contemporary Jewish Identity, published by Pennsylvania State University Press. The pair solicited submissions for the edited volume, contributed their own essays and also conducted interviews with a few notable figures, including Phish bassist Mike Gordon.
“When I started my doctoral work, I was told to stay away from the Grateful Dead and certainly from Phish because it wasn’t scholarly enough,” recalls WerdenGreenfield, who is currently the associate director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and special advisor on Antisemitism at Temple University. “Getting the reports back from our readers [who vetted the work for the Press, which is standard academic practice], and having them acknowledge that this was scholarly, and that it was making a contribution to the field of religious studies, cultural studies and Jewish studies, was pretty affirming.”
Kroll-Zeldin, who is the assistant director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice and Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco, notes that they hope the book will spark dialogues outside academia as well. “There will be events in multiple cities across the country, but it’s not necessarily about selling the book,” he says “We’ve been approached by synagogues, community centers and cultural centers. The idea is to go to all these places and have some really interesting conversations.”
Before we talk about Phish, can you share some details about your academic career paths?
OREN: When I was an undergrad at Skidmore College, I stayed away from studying anything related to Jewishness, in part because there were no classes available and in part because I had grown up in a Jewish community, and wanted no more education on anything Jewish. But after college, I became more interested in learning about it, and I ended up getting a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology.
Through my Ph.D. research, I focused a lot on the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. Part of my research agenda is looking at the complexity of Jewish identity and thinking about how Jews do Jewish things outside the confines of traditional Jewish life. So this project is very much in line with that.
I have a book coming out next year about young American Jews who do Palestine solidarity activism and how they express that as a Jewish value. It discusses how they’re challenging the internal Jewish American conversation about what it means to be Jewish.
At what point in your life did you first connect with the music of Phish?
OREN: I’ve had a passion for music as long as I can remember. My parents took me to see Peter, Paul and Mary and James Taylor as a very young child. Then I started seeing live shows in middle school. At the beginning of high school, I started to understand and appreciate live music in a new way once I saw Phish.
ARIELLA: My journey with Phish and my academic journey share a similar root in that I started exploring religion and spirituality and the band when I was in middle school. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about different religious traditions around the world, different forms of spirituality within the United States, and how people were thinking about belief, faith and the big questions.
I started listening to Phish music, got tickets to a show at Madison Square Garden when I was in seventh grade, and ended up hearing “Avenu Malkenu” at my first show. But even before catching a religious prayer at that first show, I was overwhelmed by the sensory impact of a Phish concert. The community aspect certainly brought up feelings of belonging and I was thrilled by the freedom of the experience. Then they played a prayer that was meaningful for me. As somebody who was really interested in exploring religion and also was very interested in exploring my own religion, I felt awakened.
That was a moment that informed my passion for the band, which kind of percolated as I continued my investigations of religion.
How did these interests finally converge in a scholarly setting and lead to the book?
OREN: After I started my academic journey in grad school, it was in the back of my mind. I wondered what it would be like to do a project on Phish or on music. Then I learned about the Phish Studies colloquium that was organized by Stephanie Jenkins at the Gorge in 2018. She told me about her own work in philosophy with Phish, and that legitimized something I had been thinking about for years.
She also ended up organizing a Phish Studies conference. [“Phish Studies: An Interdisciplinary Conference on The Band, Its Music & Its Fans” took place from May 17-19, 2019 at Oregon State University.] I submitted and then organized a panel at the conference. This book came out of that.
ARIELLA: Music has always been a part of my academic inquiry, as has Jewish culture more broadly. When I went to graduate school, I thought that I was going to be focusing on Jewishness and gender, but as soon as I got to graduate school, I started writing about Rastafari, reggae music and the Hebrew Bible. I also started writing about hip-hop and Islam. I started exploring the many ways that music can serve as a site of religiosity and of religious experience. It was only a matter of time before I turned the lens on my own practice surrounding Phish and considered how my experience could be a part of a rigorous academic inquiry.
So I was honored and thrilled to partner with Oren on this project. It was almost a natural answer to this longterm friendship that started in a religion classroom at Skidmore and continued over the years when we would run into each other at Phish shows. Then we ran into each other at the Association for Jewish Studies meeting, which is a large academic gathering of folks who come together to discuss what is happening in the world of Jewish studies. So we naturally fell into this space where we were going to lead this conversation and invite others to join in it.
Do you anticipate that the work you’re doing will reverberate in the academic community beyond the study of Phish?
ARIELLA: This is a revolutionary space that we’re entering, and we’re entering it with incredible thought partners. We’re carving out a new academic field and it is an honor to be showing the academy that Phish is worthy of this kind of careful consideration from different disciplines. We’re doing this with people across the country, and our hope is to ask other academics who are not Phish fans to join this work.
OREN: Jewish music is a big topic among scholars in Jewish studies, musicology, ethnomusicology and beyond. Not a lot of it focuses on contemporary artists, although there are significant pieces of scholarship on the people you might imagine, like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
I agree with Ariella that this is at the vanguard in terms of carving out a new space in understanding the links between Jewish studies, contemporary music and the ways that people in American Jewish communities connect to their Jewishness through music.
Do you see parallels to your work in other academic traditions or disciplines?
ARIELLA: There are several examples from the Jewish studies world of scholars who are paying careful attention to cultural spaces and considering them as sites of identity formation in a way that goes beyond conversations that have happened before, surrounding how we use culture to identify ourselves. There’s this push to take seriously how Jewishness is lived outside of the synagogue.
For us, we wanted to highlight that Jewishness is lived religiously and culturally in a place that is not a traditional Jewish space.
What we’re seeing is that there’s thriving Jewish life happening, and it’s joyful. People are seeking it out, and they’re enjoying being a part of it. We’re highlighting that Jewish religious practice and Jewish culture can happen in unexpected places, while also showing that Jewishness is prevalent, alive and uniquely situated to its specific setting at Phish and in these other spaces that previously have not been explored.
Who is your target audience for the book?
OREN: From the beginning, this was not a book for an academiconly audience. This was always meant to be a crossover book that would be relevant to scholars of Jewish studies, scholars of music, scholars of religion, American studies scholars, even media studies scholars. But it was also intended for the members of the Jewish community more broadly, who might wonder why their friends, nephews or cousins like this band. Even more importantly, this is for anyone in the Phish community— Jewish or not Jewish—who wants to think and learn more about the Jewish phenomenon that’s right in front of their eyes. It’s essential for scholars to be able to speak to a broader audience.
ARIELLA: One thing that was primary for both of us was that we looked to create something that invited readers in. One of the problems with academic publishing is that, very often, readers are turned off if they don’t have that specialist knowledge. We want to invite people to be a part of this conversation. We want to continue having this conversation, and we want this conversation to inspire people to think about how their own identities are enforced, reinforced, highlighted and celebrated in and around Phish concerts.
As the essays came in, was there anything that surprised you?
ARIELLA: Even though there’s so much shared experience— there are a lot of people who write about hearing “Avenu Malkenu”—I was struck by how uniquely our contributors each experienced Jewishness in and around Phish. It was inspiring and exciting. There’s so much that’s happening. People are living religious lives on tour, and learning about their experiences and their choices has been fascinating.
OREN: For me, when I organized the panel at the Phish Studies conference in 2019, one of the people who joined us was a rabbi [Jessy Dressin] who wanted to write about how Phish shows were similar to making the sacred pilgrimage to the ancient temple in Jerusalem. That is something I had never thought about. I was so struck by the similarities she drew out in that. Then she wrote it up in a much more fleshed out and profound way for a chapter in this book.
I can no longer think about getting ready for Phish, or going to concerts or festivals, without thinking about those similarities.
In the process of doing this— editing these chapters, going through many drafts with a lot of these authors, and getting really deep into it with them and their ideas—I came to realize that there was a language, an articulation of the thoughts and feelings that I had going to Phish shows. I realized there was a profound language to express what I was thinking and feeling about this communal rejoicing and collective effervescence—this doubling down of my Jewish identity and my identity as a Phish fan. For me as a scholar, that was so important because I realized, in a truly deep and embodied way, the value of theory and how there’s a relationship between theory and practice. I was experiencing and feeling the writings of the scholars, journalists and rabbis in this book. It helped me understand how theory comes into practice.
That’s the biggest surprise for me in the whole project. I’m really grateful to all the contributors for helping me understand that in a deep way.
ARIELLA: In a way, that’s so much deeper than what you can gain in graduate school when you’re learning theory. You’re learning theory and you’re applying it to something that is not of personal experience. Then to be given the opportunity to focus this energy on something that has such great meaning for us in our lives has been a gift, and it’s changed me forever as a scholar. It’s changed the way that I think about music and the relationship between power, music and identity-building.
What do you hope the impact of the book will be within the larger realm of ideas?
ARIELLA: I hope that people are inspired to talk about the meaning of Phish in their lives and that they’re inspired to think about Phish as a cultural phenomenon, worthy of academic inquiry. I want people who are enthusiastic about this band and feel connected Jewishly in and around Phish shows and the Phish ecosphere to smile and feel seen because Jewishness is a piece of what’s happening at Phish. It feels good for Jewish people when we say, “Hey, we know this is a real experience.” It’s affirming.
OREN: First of all, I want people to have fun reading this. Phish is fun and it was enjoyable to work on.
In the academic context, I hope that it helps legitimize some of the ideas that are in the book and it helps legitimize the seriousness of Phish as an academic inquiry.
I also want to reiterate what Ariella just said—that the book helps people come to a robust understanding of the complexity of Jewish identity. I’d like them to realize how Phish has become an alternative site of Jewish cultural and religious production for people who can make meaningful Jewish experiences in and through this band’s music.