Israelis who grooved at Woodstock

‘I remember that it was two years after the Six Day War. I was 16 and I loved meeting new people’

Woodstock Festival (photo credit: Courtesy)
Woodstock Festival
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Traffic, torrential rain, lack of food, sex, drugs and lots of rock-n-roll – this is what turned the Woodstock Music Festival into a legend. Fifty years later, a number of Israelis who were among the half a million attendees at the rock festival, recount for us that unforgettable experience.
“By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation.”
These are the lyrics from a song called “Woodstock,” which describes the mythological event. It was performed by the British band Matthews Southern Comfort and reached the top of the UK pop charts in 1970. The song was written by Joni Mitchell, who wasn’t even at the festival, since she was busy giving a concert in another location.
Mitchell had heard all about Woodstock from her boyfriend, Graham Nash, who had performed at Woodstock with the other members of his band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. If you read the words of the song, you can begin to understand how for the people who lived in the US at the time, the festival was symbolic of the 1960s counterculture, and much more than a gathering of flower children who wanted to listen to music, do drugs and engage in sex.
The festival, which had begun as a single concert to promote a New York record label, soon turned into a three-day-long event that took on political significance and promoted peace and love (and not war). This was toward the end of the Vietnam War, which had taken a heavy toll on the American public. A number of well-known musicians participated, including Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Janice Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, Richie Havens, Santana and many more fantastic artists, some of whom became famous following their participation in Woodstock.
The Israeli contingency was made up by bohemian artists like Arik Einstein, Uri Zohar, Shalom Hanoch, Boaz Davidson, Zvi Shisel, and Yonatan Gefen, who embraced the messages of peace and camaraderie, and incorporated them into their own music and acts. The closest comparison is the Hebrew version of John Lennon’s song, “Give Peace a Chance,” performed by a group of Israel’s top artists, including Einstein, the Churchills, Hagashash Hachiver and Yossi Banai. A number of Israelis who happened to be in the US at the time were able to attend the three-day festival in August 1969.
“IT WAS mid-summer, 1969. The Vietnam War was in full throttle, and opposition to the war was growing every day,” recalls blogger Jeff Meshel. “In the next town over from where I was going to college, people were extremely conservative and they would get very upset if they heard someone say anything unpatriotic or saw young men with long hair. I remember seeing bumper stickers with, ‘America: Love it or Leave it’ written on them. There was so much tension in the air, which had only increased following the murder of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and riots that had taken place in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Ninety percent of Americans hated us purely because we had long hair.”
“We drove north in the purple Mustang belonging to my friend Bill, who worked on the student newspaper with me,” continues Meshel. “On the ride up, we started hearing reports about heavy traffic on the roads leading to the festival area. We decided to get rid of all the marijuana we had left just in case there was a police checkpoint up ahead. We reached the edge of the traffic around noon, which was about 10 kilometers from the festival. Lots of people were parking on the side of the road and walking, so we decided to do the same.”
What’s the first thing you saw when you arrived at the site?
“Lots of huge fields. It was very pastoral and quiet. Some people were sitting on the hoods of their cars, just hanging out and smiling as other people walked by. People had come from as far away as Wisconsin, Missouri, Virginia and Ohio. Many of us felt like society had rejected us, and it felt good to find kindred spirits. Turns out there were like half a million of us at the festival. Freaks, despised by society, discovering that they had a community after all.”
Yankale Shemesh, a Jewish meditation instructor, had been a hippie in the US before he became religious and made aliyah. He’d shown up at Woodstock a full two weeks before the festival began so that he could get a good spot.
“We thought maybe if we came ahead of time, we’d find some paying work, but there wasn’t really any,” he recalls. “I helped set up the stages – a big one that the artists stood on while performing, and a smaller one for them to hang out on after they’d finished their set. The festival organizers had only brought enough food to feed about 10,000 people – that’s how many people they thought would show up. No one imagined in their wildest dreams that so many would come in the end.”
JUDY PORAT, who lives now on Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzchak, was also at Woodstock.
“I was just about to start my fourth year of college at the University of Connecticut,” recalls Porat. “Two friends of mine and I had seen an ad for the festival, and it looked like great fun. We started driving early in the morning on the first day of the festival and ended up parking in a nearby town and walking four kilometers. Everyone there had marijuana or LSD with them. We didn’t go for the music really – we just wanted to enjoy the atmosphere. We were all pretty much high the whole time. It was all very peaceful. There were no police around.”
How long did you stay there?
“It rained really hard the first night of the festival, and so the next day was a catastrophe. There were no bathrooms, the food ran out really quickly, and there weren’t any first-aid stations. We were completely covered in mud, so we left. They were not equipped to handle 500,000 people.”
Shulamit Berman, Porat’s next-door neighbor on the kibbutz, arrived at the festival later that day and had a completely different experience.
“I was a huge rock-n-roll fan,” Berman says eagerly. “Since I keep Shabbat, I’d planned to go up only on Sunday morning with a few other religious friends. It was very mellow and nice. People seemed really happy and full of love.”
Shmulik Bar-Oz, who used to play in the Israeli band Hanisichim, which opened for Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, arrived at the festival on the third day.
“I’d been traveling around the US with a friend of mine, and we heard there was a cool festival going on, so we decided to check it out,” Bar-Oz explains. “By the time we got there, so many people were going in and out that they were no longer checking for tickets. I’d performed before with Hendrix, so it was incredible to see him again up on the stage.”
“I REMEMBER that it was two years after the Six Day War. I was 16 and I loved meeting new people. And Americans loved hanging out with Israelis, so it was lots of fun for me,” recalls Asher Hershkowitz, who’d been visiting relatives in Brooklyn. “A few guys I met told me they were going to a huge party and that I should come with them. So I joined them. There were lots of people doing drugs, but I wasn’t interested. This was total culture shock for me coming from Israel.”
Did you enjoy the music?
“Well, to be honest, we couldn’t hear it very well,” says Hershkowitz. “It was kind of like background music. And then all of a sudden there was lightning and a huge thunder and I realized we were going to get caught in an enormous storm. I was only 16, so I didn’t mind at all. The first time I actually noticed the music was when Joe Cocker starting singing ‘With a Little Help from My Friends.’ I love the Beatles and when I heard Joe, I left my friends and moved closer to the stage so I could get a closer look. I loved the way he moved his arms around when he sang. His singing really touched my heart.”
The excessive rain on the first night was just one of the difficulties festival attendees had to contend with.
“A few of us needed to pee, and so we began looking for a space where we wouldn’t be right on top of people,” describes Meshel. “It took us 30 minutes to find an empty spot. Then we got hungry, but we couldn’t find any food. So we returned to the car and drove right up to the area where the stage was set up. I don’t actually remember any of the music that was played at the festival – nobody seemed to be paying much attention to it. Then we saw a girl who was experiencing a really bad trip, so we took her to the medical tent. People were dancing and singing in the mud. Some were partly naked. At some point we returned to the car because we were starving. The only thing we’d had to eat was my grandmother’s apple strudel. We tried to get some sleep, but couldn’t really. At 6 a.m., we got in the car and left.”
On March 26, 1970, the movie Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh, debuted. The 330-minute film documents all three days of the festival, and gives a different perspective than that of the few Israelis who’d joined the half a million people at the festival.
“When I was at Woodstock, I didn’t really understand the proportions of what was going on around me,” admits Hershkowitz. “Only after I saw the movie did I begin to comprehend that I had been part of something so momentous. When I returned home after my trip and told friends that I’d been at Woodstock, nobody really reacted with much excitement. Of course, nowadays when I tell people, they think that’s so incredible.”
“We were surrounded by naked people dancing around as we lounged on the grass,” recalls Porat, “but only after I saw the movie did I really understand how crazy it was there. At the time, we thought it was just a fun concert with good music. Over the years, it has taken on greater significance. It certainly was a unique experience.”
“I admit I love seeing the reaction I get from people when I tell them I was at Woodstock,” Meshel confides. “When I hear the songs on the radio nowadays that were played live at the concert, I wax nostalgic, and regret that we left after the first day.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.