The long, strange trip of Israeli Deadheads

Among the most rabid of the followers were a disproportionate percentage of American Jews.

Grateful Dead (photo credit: Lorelai Kude)
Grateful Dead
(photo credit: Lorelai Kude)
No other band in the rock era produced as devoted a following as The Grateful Dead.
Deadheads, as they were both affectionately and disparagingly called, were bonded not only by the music of the band, which ranged from rootsy rock, country and blues, to out-there jamming and space explorations.
They also embraced the Dead’s fierce, anti-authoritarian independence and its ongoing spiritual quest to create something new at each performance.
Among the most rabid of the followers were a disproportionate percentage of American Jews, some of whom eventually evolved from praying at the altar of Jerry Garcia to discovering their own Jewish roots, becoming observant and moving to Israel. But Deadheads they remained, and many of them will be out in full tie-dye force at next week’s show by The Mickey Hart Band, the first-ever performance by a member of the Dead in the Holy Land.
“For a lot of us Deadheads who came to Israel, there are many similarities with our love of the Dead and Judaism,” said 46-year-old Jerusalem resident and political analyst Mitchell Barak, who made aliyah in 1991 from the New York area and has served as an adviser to prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu, as well as to President Shimon Peres.
“We came here because we were seeking many of the same qualities we found in the Dead – a great sense of community, a certain sense of spirituality, and most importantly, the improvisation of trying to find perfection by making mistakes along the way.
“Anyone who’s been in Israel for any time, especially if you’ve worked in government, knows that everything works on the model of improvisation, and a lot of people are attracted to that,” added Barak, who saw his first Grateful Dead show in 1983.
For Lorelai Kude, who runs the online Dead-loving radio station Radio Free Nachlaot with co-founder and fellow Deadhead Steve Levine, what’s kept her involved in the Dead’s music and scene is is its continuing evolution despite the band’s demise in 1995 following Garcia’s death at age 53.
“The music and the magic of the Grateful Dead live on in the same way that the music and the Torah of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach live on, because they’re both made of living stuff,” said Kude, an award-winning media professional who made aliyah from her “all access VIP backstage pass lifestyle” in the Los Angeles television industry to Jerusalem in 2007.
“They continue to grow, add followers and devotees, long after they themselves cease to exist in corporeal reality. That’s how you can tell something is real. It has a life and an energy all it’s own that is not just self-sustaining, but continues to grow, blossom and bear fruit, year after year. The Dead were all about love and family and togetherness.
These are values that never die – and in this day and age, we need those values even more.”
STEVE LEVINE, who occasionally performs with a Dead tribute band on keyboards and saw the first of his “more than 100” Dead shows in New York’s Roosevelt Stadium in 1972, sees the Hart show as a renewal of a long-standing tradition that combines his love of music with his love of Judaism.
“For me, the music that Hart and Dead make is like reaching a place.
You know what happens when you hear a song, or a note or a riff and it touches you on the inside and resonates? That experience is spiritual,” said Levine, who moved to Israel from Philadelphia in 2007.
“Jews resonate with the Torah and Jewish spirituality, and it’s the same thing with living in Israel. We’re here struggling to make a living, and have given up lots of comfortable things we left behind, yet we walk the streets and we’re happy. Why? Because living in Israel resonates somewhere inside of us. And that experience is also spiritual.”
Kude pointed out that the Dead tradition has carried on in Israel with a number of American-bred local acts who channel the band’s free-flowing, spiritual vibe, including Aryeh Naftali and the Elevators, Lazer Lloyd and Yehuda Katz. She expected the same sense of community to be there in spades at the Hart show.
“The Dead chevre [community] will be all out together in all our tie-dyed glory, so yes the vibe will be family, much like it is when we enjoy our annual ‘JerryFest’ concerts that Aryeh Naftali and the Elevators do every year. But it will be extra, extra special, because, gevalt! Mickey Hart is playing! His current band and his current style isn’t really Grateful Dead-esque or Dead derivative, but it is totally groovy ‘Rhythm Devil’ stuff, and we’re all looking forward to enjoying the hell out of it,” she said.
Levine agreed that despite the fact it wasn’t The Grateful Dead appearing in Jerusalem, Hart’s show would bridge the gap between the comfortably familiar and the forbidding unknown much in the same way Dead shows did decades ago.
“Hart is such a vital player and his rhythms and drumming were always a big part of the fabric that made up the Dead,” added Levine. “He was alive and electric then, and he still is.
It’s not a like a cover band playing Dead music to boredom already. This is fresh stuff and wonderful.”
Barak said that of all the former members of the Dead, Hart has strayed the most out of his comfort zone, which for some Deadheads, who only want to hear their favorite oldies, might create some dissonance.
“Mickey has broken out and gotten involved with different endeavors, and I think people appreciate it on the one hand, but want to hear their loved Dead songs on the other,” he said. “But he’s coming here with new music, and I think people will respect that.”
“The fact that he’s coming to Israel – and to Jerusalem – is definitely significant.
It’s no coincidence that he’s coming to the Sacred Music Festival, because there’s always been that level of spirituality around the Dead’s music that is sacred. For so many followers of the Dead in Israel, the principles that guided them from the beginning are still with them today – a sense of community, trying to be decent people, being nice to the other person – all of these are universal values.”
When the lights go down next week in Jerusalem, those lofty ideals will be put into practice. Bearded men with flowing tzitzit, head-covered women doing the patented Deadhead shuffle will mesh organically with younger generation of jamband disciples – secular and religious, American and Israeli – to recreate the unlikely community that has kept the music of the Dead going for almost 50 years.