The Summer of Love swept through San Francisco in a tie-dyed haze of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll in 1967, turning the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood into a hippie haven of acid trips and musical awakenings.
But for many of the Jewish kids who flocked to the Haight a half-century ago, there was something else — a search for spirituality and meaning they felt was absent in the synagogues of their parents.
Jews were a disproportionate part of the scene, with contemporaneous and current accounts suggesting they made up a quarter to a third of the thousands of hippies who lived in — or flocked to — the Haight that summer.
Many of the spiritual, literary and musical gurus in what former Haight-Ashbury community leader Tsvi Strauch calls the “Magical Mystery Vortex” were Jewish, from poet Allen Ginsberg to Richard Alpert, a Harvard professor who was one of the early proponents of using LSD to explore human consciousness (and who in 1967 changed his name to Ram Dass).
American Judaism itself changed as a result of that hippie culture, with the Jewish Renewal movement and the growth of Chabad considered legacies of that time. (The picture on Ram Dass’ Wikipedia page is a photo of him with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a former Chabad emissary and one of the founders of Jewish Renewal.)
Aryae Coopersmith, whose book “Holy Beggars: A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem” details his spiritual journey that began in the hippie culture of San Francisco, argues that Jews seeking a higher sense of purpose provided much of the impetus for the hippie happenings of the late 1960s.
Coopersmith, a resident of El Granada on the San Mateo County coast and the founder of a company that seeks to create bonds among Silicon Valley executives, grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s and said he became an atheist after his bar mitzvah.
“There was something in me that deeply craved a spiritual life but that did not find it in the synagogue at that time,” he said. “When we were at Haight Street and there was LSD and there were other young people of Jewish background and some of the spiritual leaders were there, we were fuel for that [hippie] fire.
“Although the Summer of Love was not identified as a Jewish cultural happening, so much of it was Jewish people who were seeking community.”
Many of those Jews later gravitated to the House of Love and Prayer, founded in San Francisco in the spring of 1968 by Coopersmith and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, another former Chabad emissary. It became the Jewish spiritual center of the Haight and was where many of the community-centered features of 21st-century American Judaism were introduced, according to those interviewed for this story.
Oren Kroll-Zeldin, a social and cultural anthropologist who is an adjunct professor in the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco, researched the House of Love and Prayer as part of a project that is mapping sites of Jewish significance in the city. He said it would be “a stretch to make the argument that the Summer of Love was fueled by Jews.”
“But you can say that postwar and post-Holocaust Jews were searching for something different and needed a new outlet, and that was one of the things that attracted them to the Summer of Love,” he said. “California is this new horizon, and for Jews it’s always been this American Jerusalem. It’s a vision of hope. It’s a vision of possibility.”
Rabbi Yosef Langer, the longtime executive director of Chabad of San Francisco, said that in the summer of 1967 he was a “wannabe hippie” who as a San Jose State student happily visited the Haight to party. He wore tie-dye shirts and had an Afro hairdo. But the rabbi, who grew up in Oakland as Gary Langer and largely ignored Judaism after his bar mitzvah, said he soon found he was seeking something more fulfilling. He turned back to Judaism and soon became a devotee of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
“Being a hippie is more of a philosophy,” he said. “A hippie is a world community of people seeing that the superficiality of wine, women and song just wasn’t doing it anymore. That’s what the hippie was: the search, the yearning, coming together in music and expression and poetry and song and dance and free love.”
Marc Dollinger, a professor in the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, said the House of Love and Prayer grew out of the search for spirituality by many young Jews who grew up in secular, assimilated households.
“A generation of youth raised in the complacency of the 1950s was searching for meaning,” he said. “Some found it in the civil rights movement. Some sought it in spirituality.”
Of course, there were plenty of Jews in the Haight that summer of 1967 who weren’t seeking a spiritual awakening. Many indulged, or perhaps overindulged, in the psychedelic experience. Others danced with joy. And still others came to observe.
As Scott McKenzie sang in 1967: “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”
“I wore flowers in my hair, yeah,” said Susan Duhan Felix, a ceramic artist in Berkeley who had moved to the Bay Area with her husband in early 1967. “I just liked the joy of the people, and the clothes. I was making my own clothes, doing the embroidery. I wasn’t involved with the sex and drugs. It was the spiritual things and also the music.”
Linda Yelnick saw Jimi Hendrix and the Doors at the Fillmore in San Francisco. She was having a post-concert snack there another night when Janis Joplin sat down at her table.
For Yelnick, a Burlingame-based band manager who is helping plan a Summer of Love event in San Francisco in August, being in the Haight in 1967 was all about observing the scene.
The product of a Conservative Jewish upbringing, she was just about to enter San Francisco State — where she later became president of the school’s first Jewish sorority, Delta Theta Pi — and would come to the Haight with her Jewish girlfriends to stand on the street corners and watch.
“I was a goody-goody. I was definitely not in that drug scene. I didn’t want the germs from people,” she said. “When I was in the Haight or at the Fillmore, we felt we didn’t have restrictions. It was different from homework and our home existence and our knishes.”
Ginsberg, a Beat Generation poet, was among the featured speakers at the Human Be-In on Jan. 14, 1967 at Golden Gate Park that many consider the spark for the Summer of Love. Strauch, a Haight merchant at the time, may have given the event its name when he co-founded the Council for a Summer of Love, a clearinghouse for events in the neighborhood.
As runaways and other young people came to San Francisco by the thousands in 1967, local groups such as the Diggers provided free food, medical care and housing. Peter Berg and Peter Coyote, the actor whose birth name was Robert Peter Cohon, were among the founders of the group that shared many of its members with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a guerrilla theater organization.
Strauch, who estimated a third of the hippies in the Haight were Jewish, was running a store called In Gear — selling water pipes and hippie clothing — when Berg and Coyote were seeking contributions for their soup kitchen. Strauch, who was also teaching Jewish philosophy and Hebrew at the now-defunct College of Jewish Studies of San Francisco, and was Hillel director at two San Francisco colleges, said he was happy to help.
“We were making money but we wanted to give back. I guess that was an expression of our Jewishness,” he said, adding that the hippies’ significant Jewish percentage “had to do with the fact that part of Jewish culture has always been to question authority.”
In July of that year, Carlebach arrived, and was soon hugging people on the street and asking if they were Jewish. If so, he’d invite them to Shabbat dinners. By the following spring, he had such a big following that he and Coopersmith opened the House of Love and Prayer at 347 Arguello Blvd., about three blocks from Congregation Emanu-El.
“They wanted to take these wayward souls, and instead of getting high on free love and pot and LSD, let’s get high on traditional Jewish practice,” USF’s Kroll-Zeldin said. “That’s what’s so interesting about the House of Love and Prayer — you had these Hasidic hippies where they meshed the ideals, the dress of the hippy lifestyle with deeply spiritual experiences.”
Rabbi Aubrey Glazer of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco said “this was their way of bringing the wandering Jews back to Judaism.”
“It really showed us the genius of American Judaism being able to incorporate elements of American culture,” he said. “Shlomo asked what’s going on in secular culture that’s attracting the Jews, and let’s make it our own.”
Ram Dass sometimes spoke at the House of Love and Prayer, where nuns, Buddhists and Hindus also were frequent guests. Coopersmith said the singing and dancing at Friday night services often stretched into the early morning.
“The doors were always open. The challenge with that was we never said no to anyone, so all kinds of people could be wandering in and asking to sleep there. There were huge pots of rice and veggies and soup. On a typical Shabbos when Shlomo wasn’t there, there would be 150 to 200 people,” Coopersmith said. “When Shlomo was there, you put all that on steroids.”
The House of Love and Prayer dissolved by 1977, though an offshoot with the same name still exists in Tsfat, Israel. But its legacy lives on in certain American Jewish circles, with its focus on community building, joyous prayer and havurah groups.
“I think that the whole Jewish Renewal thing came out of it and the services I go to now, Urban Adamah, Wilderness Torah, they definitely have hippie influence,” Felix said. “That was the dream people had. They kind of organized it into institutions for the next generations.”
Langer said the House of Love and Prayer showed that “people want passion, to be passionate about Judaism. And they want song and something that touches their heart.”
Glazer pointed to Bay Area groups such as The Kitchen as outgrowths of the communal spirit of the House of Love and Prayer.
“At the end of the day, it contributed immensely to the revival of American Judaism,” he said. “We’re still learning and absorbing the lessons that were being taught at the House of Love and Prayer, that’s it’s important to connect people on more than just an intellectual and a liturgical way.
“That’s what the House of Love and Prayer was able to absorb from the larger hippie movement — the need to let go of some of the walls that keep us apart and to actually be real and to be human and wear your soul on your sleeve.”