As a gentle snow fell on the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., some 85 people gathered inside a wooden lodge to welcome Shabbat. Half of the group formed a meditation circle in which Grateful Dead lyrics served as a kind of mantra; the rest had a more “traditional” service where the Lecha Dodi prayer was sung to the tune of the Dead classic “Ripple.”
It was the second installment of Blues for Challah, a weekend retreat that attracts Jewish Deadheads — or “grown-up hippies retracing their past,” as one participant put it — to bask in their collective love and reverence for the Grateful Dead.
Over the course of two days in November, a colorful sea of devotees — clad in tie-dye, hemp and oversize knit yarmulkes — munched on organic food, swapped stories of following the Dead and tripping on acid, and of course, jammed.
A product of the 1960s’ San Francisco counterculture, the Grateful Dead inspired a fanatical loyalty from fans drawn as much by their music as the traveling carnival of seekers and misfits that followed them from venue to venue and obsessively trafficked in bootlegged recordings of their performances.
Though it’s been nearly 20 years since the death of Mill Valley resident Jerry Garcia, the band’s frontman and creative force, the Dead continues to be a cultural and commercial force — especially for the disproportionately large number of Deadheads who happen to be Jews.
The legendary Marin County music promoter Bill Graham, an early champion of the Dead, was a German-born Jewish refugee from the Nazis. Mandolinist David Grisman, also of Marin, was a longtime collaborator, contributing the signature mandolin part on the studio version of “Ripple.” For many Jews, attending shows was akin to a religious experience and the band’s lyrics contain powerful spiritual messages.
“The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that the way you look at things throughout your day can be an expression in the way you relate to God,” said Chabad of San Francisco’s Rabbi Yosef Langer. “I was blown away when I found that exact concept in the Dead’s ‘Scarlet Begonias’ song when they sing, ‘Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.’”
Langer, a longtime Chabad emissary in the Bay Area, spearheaded a “Grateful Yid” movement in the 1980s in which he set up a table at shows beneath a giant sign that read “POT.”
“They later learned our sign meant Put On Tefillin,” Langer said.