Searching for Shalom: Judaism & the Grateful Dead

Rabbi Saul Grife on December 12, 2014

Question: How is lighting the Hanukkah candles just like a Grateful Dead concert?

Answer: They both grow in intensity as they progress!

Judaism & the Grateful Dead – an unlikely or natural pairing?

There are many Jews who take to both Judaism and the Grateful Dead like bees to honey. This phenomenon shouldn’t be surprising. It certainly isn’t incongruous. First of all, by definition, serious adherents of both groups are true seekers in search of creating a more humane world.4000 years ago, Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, left their idolatrous home and culture in Mesopotamia in search of their one true God and a homeland. Since then, their descendants have practiced Judaism in search of a better world of celebration, justice, security and peace for all. Nearly 50 years ago, the Grateful Dead left the conventional world behind in search of a sound and spirit that would move lives to capture the possibilities of how alluring and joyful life could be. Since then, their fans have followed the music and forged a culture in search of an inspiring joyful spirit that could be shared to create a better world filled with peace and love for all. At their best, both Judaism & the Grateful Dead provide seekers with similar gifts, each in their own language and way. They are spirited dynamic communities who find great significance in life, caring, sharing, celebration and written & oral traditions in the hope of making the world a more joyous and peaceful place for all.Phrases like “Jews for Jerry” and “Blues for Challah” testify to the confluence of these cultures to those who are seriously passionate about both Judaism & the Dead. Many have found incredible insight and inspiration from what both Judaism & the Dead have to offer, resulting in molding people who are truly blessings to humanity.

In both the spheres of Jewish and Grateful Dead life, I have witnessed the best of human behavior. One value for example that finds a deep-seeded home in both Judaism & the Dead is the compassion accorded to the stranger. The Torah, Judaism’s most sacred text, repeatedly reminds Jews to extend particularly loving care to the strangers amongst us because we remember what is was like to be “strangers ourselves in slavery in the land of Egypt” over 3000 years ago. Consequently, a formidable pillar of Jewish life is all the generosity and sensitivity Jews have extended to others from one generation to the next.The Grateful Dead, from their earliest days in Haight-Ashbury, dedicated much energy into supporting the people and initiatives that were caring for those in need of basic necessities on the streets of San Francisco, like the Diggers then the Free City Collective. The Scarlet Begonias’ lyric of “strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand” parallels this value. I have witnessed both Jews and Deadheads go way out of their way to care for the strangers among them.In so many places where we congregate – in synagogues, Israel and at concerts to name a few – people have rerouted themselves to feed, clothe and shelter others, not to mention passing along some Tzedakah (money) to lend a helping hand, or a “miracle” to enable the ticketless to enter a show. I have seen people reach out and travel great distances to make others feel included. How many Passover Seders are filled with new faces because of the ancient Jewish tradition to welcome others to our meals and the message of freedom! How many Deadheads open up their friendship, drumming and hackey sack circles before concerts to anyone who wants to join in! I am proud that so many Jews and Deadheads and Jewish Deadheads have been so comfortably motivated by their identities that they have offered kind words and deeply helpful gestures to both those they know and those they don’t yet know, resulting in the introduction of greater measures of peace, love and harmony into our world.

Grateful Dead history includes many touchstones with Judaism.

In the early 1990’s, stories about back stage Passover Seders during the Dead’s spring tour circulated among Jewish fans. San Francisco Lubavitch groups have promised Saturday night Dead tickets to individuals that first spend Friday night and Shabbat with them.One member of the Grateful Dead – drummer Mickey Hart – has his Bar Mitzvah photograph published in The Grateful Dead Family Album (p. 18). Mickey was the first and only member of the Dead to tour Israel; he played a concert in Jerusalem last August 2014.

Grateful Dead music includes several Biblical, Jewish & Middle Eastern themes.

1972’s Ace album by Bob Weir opened with “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Played a total of 271 times by the Grateful Dead, the Weir/Hunter/Hart collaboration features surrealistic images of the Biblical personalities of Moses, Abraham & Isaac.1977’s Terrapin Station offered a cover of Reverend Gary Davis’ “Samson & Delilah,” the original story found in the Bible in Judges 16. Fans of Grateful Dead trivia may know that the Dead were more likely to play “Samson & Delilah” on a Sunday than on other days. Why? Because as Phil Lesh explained, “Sunday is church day, and anywhere we play is like church.” Judaism, religion and the Grateful Dead share the themes of spirituality in their own ways.Double platinum best-seller In the Dark, released in 1987, offered a song that appeared neither on the original disc nor the CD but on the original cassette tape version entitled “My Brother Esau.” Though the song has often been interpreted as a commentary on the Vietnam War, Jews & Biblical enthusiasts picked up on the reference to Jacob’s twin brother first appearing in Genesis 25. Finally, any conversation on Judaism & the Grateful Dead cannot be complete without discussing 1975’s Blues for Allah. The original record featured the printed lyrics of the title track in 4 languages: English, Hebrew, Arabic and Persian – a real treat for Jewish Deadheads! The Hebrew translator, Drora Prior, translated “Blues for Allah” as “Melodies for God.” Some maintain that the sadness of the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and the Arabs inspired this artistic creation. Lyricist Robert Hunter shares in his book Box of Rain that “this lyric is a requiem for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a progressive and democratically inclined ruler (and, incidentally a fan of the Grateful Dead) whose assassination in 1975 shocked us personally.” In 1978, the Dead played three mythic concerts in Egypt; Jewish Deadheads and others hoped the band would have also played in Israel while they were in the neighborhood. On more than one of my trips to Israel, interested parties alluded of the attempts to get the group to play in Israel at none other than the Dead Sea! The Dead themselves admitted that they believed their music was greatly affected by the setting in which it was played. They travelled to Egypt to see what the power of the land of the Pharaohs and the pyramids would do to their sound.Stories abound about how the Dead wanted to play the Great Wall of China. I marvel at how amazing “The Dead Play the Dead Sea” would have been for those of us in love with Israel, Judaism and the Grateful Dead – what a blast it would have been!

Judaism offers the world a celebratory heritage of values that inspires eager constituents to live humbly, compassionately and generously for the benefit of one and for all. The Dead’s early efforts to promote the spirit of community, caring, freedom and change were part of a counter-cultural phenomenon that were led by many Jewish social activist leaders including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The music and spirit of the Grateful Dead offers the world an adventurous sense of mystery that begins in structured music and then departs for worlds uncharted. It combines an incredible balance of the familiar and the unknown. As a pulpit rabbi seeking to energize modern liberal Jews to the joys of Tradition and Change, I implement the Dead’s spirit of daring improvisation to enhance connections to the Jewish religion in the most dynamic and compelling ways. I feel fortunate to have these two vibrant forces co-exist so effortlessly within me as they do within many others. The combination renders me more conscientious of the truth that one of the best answers I know to the question of “Why are we here?” is “to enjoy and live life to the fullest and to help others.” Thanks to Judaism & the Grateful Dead for inspiring me to live life doing both!

Lyricist Robert Hunter eulogized Jerry Garcia by asking, “Now that the singer is gone, where shall I go to hear the song?” Judaism has survived throughout the most daunting of challenges for 4000 years mainly due to its tenacity to continue and its ability to re-invent itself to successfully fit new circumstances. After Jerry died, the Dead scene did the same led by the Other Ones, the Dead and Furthur. The Torah teaches in Exodus 3, “Moses turned to see the burning bush that was not consumed; within the fire and the light he found the presence of God.” The lyric of Scarlet Begonias observes, “Once in a while you can get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” The best of lights throughout time find a way to continue to burn in one manifestation or another despite the darkness that threatens them. May Deadheads continue to chase the sound and follow the light to enrich life for themselves and others around them. May the Jewish people continue to be a “light unto the nations”, providing the values, attitudes and actions that can help lead humanity to world redemption. May the seasonal candles of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and goodwill towards all inspire us to find the light that will illuminate the way towards a better world.

And… may the music and our search for shalom – peace for all – never stop!

Saul Grife has been living and teaching the passion of Judaism & the Grateful Dead since Europe ’72 was released. As a pulpit rabbi, he managed to juggle attending hundreds of Grateful Dead thru Furthur concerts and thousands of synagogue services. Saul is a proud husband and father of 3 daughters. His first musical release, “Tales from the First Book,” is an original rock opera of the Biblical book of Genesis.