Category Archives: Grateful Dead

Teach Your Children

Penned by Graham Nash, the song first appeared on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  Arguably one of the best known and most beloved rock songs of all time, the opening lyrics are unforgettable, sung in the high, soaring harmonies that marked the group at its height:

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.*

The song came into my mind this past Sunday evening, when Becky and I had the chance to see Dark Star Orchestra at the Maine State Pier in Portland.  The band was in rare form, probably the best I’ve seen them, playing with energy and verve through a concert, as they say, ‘originally performed by the Grateful Dead’ in the spring of 1989.  It was a GA venue over looking the water, a gorgeous and sunny Maine afternoon, everything just about exactly perfect.

It just so happened that we found our spot in the sea of Deadheads a few yards in front of the soundboard.  To our right was a multi-generational Deadhead family.  The original Heads, now in their mid-60s, brought their daughters and grandchildren to the show.  The grandmother took great joy in sharing the time and the music with her grandchildren, spending a good part of the evening dancing with them, holding them, laughing and playing with them.

There is something about old Deadheads that tugs at my heartstrings.  They’ve often seen a lot, been through a lot, done a lot (maybe in some cases too much!).  Their bodies don’t quite move like they used to (whose do?!).  But there is a powerful resiliency there.  And also a love of something deep and true.  When the lights go down and the music comes up, the first notes ringing loud and clear through the blue sky of a late summer afternoon, they get to their feet and begin to move.  The heads start to nod, the hips shake, the feet shuffle, the fingers snap.  And yes, the lips smile.  They feel it in their hearts and souls, the sweet melodies that have accompanied them through so many years, so many moments of their lives.  The music brings them to their feet, rejuvenates their spirits, gives them a few precious hours to leave the world behind and to join in the great tribal celebration with family, friends, the extended Deadhead community, and yes, even with grandchildren.  Perhaps, especially with grandchildren.

The second set of the show opened with Shakedown Street, the Dead’s nod to the late 70s disco revolution, somehow turned into one of their great jamming vehicles.  “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart!”  We might say the very same thing about the old Deadheads.  Teaching the next generations, they are still on the road, still driving the bus.

* Deadheads will remember that the opening pedal steel guitar licks of the tune are played by Jerry Garcia

here is a link to the Grateful Dead’s original performance of the Pittsburgh ’89 show

And below a picture of the proud grandmother and her grandchildren at the show – IMG_4940

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The Rabbi’s Holiday

Thanksgiving, of course.  A day when you actually might not have to  work, when you can stay at home with your family, make pancakes, read the paper, leisurely sip your morning coffee, watch some football later in the day, drink a beer in the middle of the afternoon.  You know, like normal people, normal families, do on weekends.  Those days are few and far between in the rabbinate.

People often say to me after the fall holidays “I hope you are resting up after the holidays, rabbi!”  But I’ve learned that one of the busiest times of my year is from the END of the holidays to Thanksgiving.  Suddenly the weddings begin (I’ve had one every Saturday night for the last month, another one Wednesday night before Thanksgiving).  Unveilings, people trying to get them in before the real cold arrives.  Meetings, delayed by the yom tov days, begin in earnest.  All of the email you couldn’t keep up with during the holiday season you try to wade through.  This year for me funerals as well (nine since Simhat Torah).  Every year through the holiday season an extended stretch of working many days in a row.  This year for me that stretch reached 42.  But who is counting?

I worry about it, I really do.  I worry first and foremost that my children’s main memory of their father as they grew up will be me walking down the stairs, leaving the house, saying ‘see you later,’ and the kids responding ‘bye, dad.’  And that is it.  No games of catch.  No kicking the soccer ball around.  No watching football together on Sundays, or brunches making omelettes together, or raking leaves, or just getting in the car and going for a ride. Zip. Zero. Zilch.  These experiences make up many of the fond memories I have of time spent with my dad while I was growing up, and I just wasn’t able to provide them for my own children.  Deep regret there, no doubt about it.

I worry also about burnout.  Heavy phrase, that.  Sounds almost violent, destructive.  But it also has a sense of hollowing, like what is done to a giant tree trunk to make a canoe.  What you have left in the end from the outside looks good, strong, and stable.  It even floats!  Performs its mission with competence, as intended.  But the inside is gone, nothing there but emptiness.  A literal shell of its original form.  I am often reminded of these lines from one of my favorite Hunter/Garcia compositions, called ‘Comes a Time’:

From day to day just letting it ride
You get so far away from how it feels inside
You can’t let go ’cause you’re afraid to fall
But the day may come when you can’t feel at all

I understand everything is a trade off.  There are many professions where people work hard, long hours, high pressure jobs, no question about it.  And I’ve been blessed professionally in many ways, serving a fabulous congregation, working with talented and caring people (fun people as well!).  Making a good living (not to be underestimated!).  My children have been able to grow up in one community, something that rabbi’s children rarely do, and I am enormously grateful for that.  But a trade off is exactly what it implies – something gained, something lost.  The question is, what is the price of that loss?

So thank goodness for Thanksgiving!  An actual break in the never ending flow of dedicated time.  A day to spend with people we love.  A day to walk the dog under a fall sky, to watch the last leaves gently fall from the trees, to browse the paper, sip some coffee, watch some football, live life, and just think and be.  Yes, a day like that.  Even for a rabbi.

This the chorus of that Hunter/Garcia song:

Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand
Says, “Don’t you see?
Gotta make it somehow on the dreams you still believe
Don’t give it up, you got an empty cup
That only love can fill, only love can fill, only love can fill”

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Summer Tour My o’ My!

Even Donna Jean showed up.  Oft maligned back in the day, she was heartily cheered at every show she participated in, every single time she stepped up to the mic.  In a sense that captured the Dead and Company summer tour, 2016.  Summer tour my o’ my!  Like the biggest, zaniest, craziest, wildest, family reunion you’ve ever attended.  Those wacky yet lovable old cousins you’ve known forever, but also new friends and relations.  At SPAC I sat on the lawn next to two young Deadheads, never having seen the band with Jerry, but in love with the music and the vibe and the scene.  Maybe they were 25.  Maybe.  At Fenway Park in Boston, right behind us, another young couple fresh to the magical, mystical, technicolor circus that made the classic bumper sticker oh so true:  there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.  There were babies with their moms and dads, teens out for their first taste of adventure, grizzled old Heads who first saw the band in the 70s.  Sorry – early 70s!  Everybody rocking and rolling, everybody a shaking and a moving.  Shake those bones!  From Connecticut to New Jersey, Wisconsin to California, New York (with its ways and means) to Massachusetts, Colorado to North Carolina, the Deadheads were on the road again.  Out in force.  I would argue the world was a little bit of a better and brighter place because of it.  And a little bit better and a little bit brighter was something we all needed this summer.

But don’t discount the music.  It wasn’t just a massive party running on the gas of nostalgia, a ‘reunion’ tour where old musicians mail it in and play the hits.  That just would never work with the Dead, with their determination to walk to the very edge of the abyss each night, and then just drop down into the vast yawning chasm of improvisational music.  What do they always say?  You can’t make this stuff up.  Fact is stranger than fiction?!  John Mayer playing with the Dead?  With Bobby?  And Billy and Mickey?  How absurd!  How could it ever work?  But work it did, beyond anyone’s imagination and expectation.  The music was fine, tasty, raunchy, beautiful, and often it was smoking hot. Old Deadheads stood slack jawed in the over flowing crowds as this band ripped into some of the classics with a completely fresh take.  How about the second night at Citi Field opening the show St. Stephen > Music Never Stopped > Bertha.  The Help > Slip> Shakedown that opened Irvine.  Or the elegiac, moving, gorgeous, haunting Days Between at SPAC, Bobby somehow pulling from the nether sphere Jerry’s very spirit to stand by him on the stage.  Or John Mayer channeling the classic 1960 Maurice Williams song Stay during the Wheel?  Night after night there were surprises and delights, new takes on old tunes, creative and unexpected setlists.  A band beyond description indeed.

I know, I know, some will say it can’t be.  The muse died when Garcia left this world and went to the great arena in the sky.  The naysayers will never climb back on the bus.  But the thing about it is this – the music lives on.  It is out of the bottle, out in the universe.  It has a life of its own, speaking now to new generations, to younger musicians who will carry the legacy forward, to younger fans who will come to the shows and enact this ancient tribal ritual, who will wonder what it was like back in the day, but who will create what it is in the present, and lay the groundwork for the future.  The last line in the Book of Lamentations is this:  renew our days as of old!  So it was for the Dead and the Deadheads in the summer of 2016.  From sea to shining sea the flag was held high, the spiral light burned bright, and the music never stopped.FullSizeRender

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Record Revival, Digital Divide

You may not even realize it, but vinyl is making a comeback.  Records, the ‘old fashioned’ kind, pressed vinyl, flat discs played on turntables, spun at a precise 33 and 1/3 rpms.  They faded so suddenly in the late 80s, giving way to the onslaught of CDs and the crisp, clean sound of digital music.  CDs were smaller, they didn’t scratch or wear out, they could even be played in a car, for crying out loud!  (Try doing that with a record!) Before you knew it, almost overnight, CDs were ubiquitous and records were assigned to the dust bin of musical history.

But now they are back.  You’ll find them in funky new record shops with names like The Sound Garden or the True Vine, Human Head Records or the Turntable Lab.  Online as well.  You’ll find them on college campuses and in the rooms of high school students.  The young leading the way, the record a new counter cultural expression in the classic counter culture milieu.  If you haven’t held a recored in your hand  for a while the sheer size of it, the colors of the album cover, the printed lyrics and liner notes, will virtually take your breath away.

Of course the debate has been quietly raging for some time, mostly in audiophile circles.  Digital versus analog.  The pristine sound of the CD, pop and crackle free, clean to a fault, its 0s and 1s somehow forming the melodies that make up the music that we love.  Compare that with the old records, their scratchy quirks, the hiccup at precisely that lyric, the sound of the needle touching down on the grooves.  Some argue that there is a warmth and resonance, an ambience, a physicality and presence that digital sound can never reproduce.

I would say it is not just music.  There is a fundamental coldness to digital life.  A loneliness.  You can see it in subway cars and restaurants and libraries, where groups of people gather but spend all of their time staring at their phones.  You sense it in the workplace, walking by office after office only to see yet another worker typing on a keyboard, staring at a screen.  You can feel the coldness in social media, the Facebook posts and Instagram photos, digital snapshots of our lives that are one dimensional, that lack feeling and vibrancy and messiness and unpredictability – the true substance of human life.  No wonder young people are embracing vinyl again.

And so it was that I found myself poking around in the back corner of our basement storage area.  My old record albums were in there somewhere.  I hadn’t seen them in years, but I knew I would never have thrown them away.  Buried in the bottom of a shelf, inside a box, inside another box, wrapped in plastic, dusty and neglected.  It was a charge to lug them out, bringing them back into daylight, flippingIMG_3736 through the covers, remembering old images that will always be ingrained in my mind, and the memories of moments and people and even a time, a feeling, that match the images and songs, the melodies and lyrics, the soundtrack of my life.

Anyone have an old turntable lying around?

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The End

Some of you may remember the song by the Doors.  Released in January 1967 on their eponymously titled debut album, it was a 12 minute long guided tour through the brilliant yet burning mind of Jim Morrison, the group’s singer and lyricist.  When asked about the song he explained it was written originally about breaking up with his girlfriend.  Maybe so.  But with its explicit references to death, its images of twisting snakes and preternatural lakes, it has always been viewed as an exploration of the end of life, of saying goodbye not for a day, not for a time, but forever.

When I was in college I spent a semester hosting a late Sunday night/early Monday morning (midnight to 5 AM) radio show on the campus station.  Mostly I played Grateful Dead bootlegs and album side long jams from the Dead’s Europe ’72 record or the Allman Brothers At Fillmore East (check out the 23 minute Whipping Post on side 4 if you haven’t heard it in a while).  But every show, precisely at 2:15 in the morning, the station’s phone would ring and a young man would request The End.  Seeing as that he was probably my only listener how could I not comply?  It was a bit eerie, hearing Morrison’s oily voice coming out of the station speakers, no one else around, the campus dark and quiet during those predawn hours.

Of course when you are young death is a distant concept, an idea you are aware of but that for the most part is entirely disconnected from your reality.  Not something that actually happens to you or those you love.  Maybe even a bit romantic, Romeo and Juliet-esque.  But rabbis know differently.  Death is a day to day reality, it is a destination, a shared fate, a deep chasm we all cross.  Death don’t have no mercy in this land, sang the Reverend Gary Davis.  Amen to that, brother.

Of course most of the time we all live in that ‘suspended state of disbelief.’  That we’ll wake up and have a normal day.  That we will walk God’s green earth, feel the breeze, watch spring blossom in its fullness, talk with our neighbors, enjoy time with our family and friends, work, eat, drink, read the paper.  Just a normal day.  What did Garcia sing in Black Peter?  “See here how everything lead up to this day, and its just like any other day that’s ever been.”  And the truth is we have to live like that. You can’t go about your life as if you are Max van Sydow wandering through some Ingmar Bergman film, Death trailing and tracking you every step of the way.  So seize the day you have, live fully, be grateful, enjoy the little moments and the great ones as well.  Walk out from under the shadow and soak up the light.  In today’s vernacular, that is how we (rock and) roll.  All of us, one way or another.

One last thought.  After referencing the Doors, the Allmans, the Dead, it is only appropriate to go all the way back to the words of the Psalmist:  “This is the day that God has made.  Let us exult and rejoice in it.” (Psalm 118:24)  Amen to that as well.

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U.S. Blues

The Grateful Dead canon is filled with references to America, a land (in the Dead’s eyes) of on the one hand potential, possibility, and freedom, and on the other absurdity and utter hypocrisy. Think of the Bob Weir/Robert Hunter composition Jack Straw, with its cowboy anti-heroes, its flying eagles, its reference to the 4th of July and its copping of the phrase ‘sea to shining sea’ from America the Beautiful. In song after song Garcia and Weir sing of old time America, of the Great West and backroom card games, of cowboys on the dusty trail, of small town life and homemade whiskey, Tennessee Jed and ‘just like New York City.’ With parched throats and dusty boots the Dead came out of the West, fresh off the trail, seeking truth through experience, exploring the power of music to reveal the real, creating alternate community but connecting to something at the core of what our great country is about.

They knew in the end there was only so much they could do, but they never flinched. They were pranksters at their core and they could spot a con a mile a way. That may be why for so many years they intentionally maintained an apolitical stance, watching the issues and the elections come and go from the sidelines with bemused expressions. Even later when they started to touch on topics that might have been political they were big picture issues – the rain forest and the climate, the general human tendency to self destruct (Weir and Barlow’s Throwing Stones.) But to actually immerse in the game, to endorse a candidate, or take a position on a particular issue was anathema. Whether right or wrong, the Dead left that kind of thing to Springsteen or Bono or Kid Rock.

But they always watched, keeping the country and its doings in view, shaking their collective head at the sheer strangeness of the entire enterprise. There was anger, too. Over the years Weir changed the lyrics in Throwing Stones: ‘Money green, its the only way – you can buy a whole God damned government today!’- always shouted with conviction and a ragged righteousness. In essence, in their own strange, bizarre, and beautiful way, they nobly filled the role of the artist, through their music granting us the flash of insight that reminds us of what it all should be about. Even politics.

The song US Blues captures it. Politics?! Uncle Sam?! The ultimate con-game, the largest and most dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing you’ll even encounter in your life. Beware of patriotism – it can muddle your mind! Watch out for politicians – they’ll try to ‘run your life, steal your wife!’ The song’s couplets are playful, even comical. But the title drives it home – US…BLUES! This is a tragedy of epic proportions. The blues is sadness personified, the lowest and worst situation you can imagine. A blues for the United States is almost a requiem, rock and roll style.

Sounds about right as a description for the political farce we are all so avidly watching unfold day by day. The ratings are through the roof! Can you imagine that? This is what we want to do with our time? Watch men in suits yell at each other, talk over each other, and insult each other with ever worsening vulgarities? Here is a better suggestion: read Mary Beard’s new history of ancient Rome, SPQR. There are some eerie parallels in terms of rising and falling, of how great countries come into being, and of what brings about their demise.

At this point it really does have to play itself out. This great and uncontrollable wave, cresting and crashing, who knows where it might actually make shore? In that very last batch of Garcia/Hunter collaborations there was a sort of US Blues redux, entitled Liberty. Here its first verse: Saw a bird with a tear in its eye, walking to New Orleans, my oh my. Hey now bird wouldn’t you rather die, than walk this world when you are born to fly?

The bird, of course is America. The question is where is it going? And maybe even more importantly, how will it get there? Will it walk or fly?

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From Generation to Generation

this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 2/27/16 –

I have often been told by people over the years that their favorite moment in the service is the singing of ‘l’dor vador’ during the kedushah.  I think one of the reasons for that – along with the beautiful music – is that people know what the phrase means – from generation to generation – and that idea is important to people, it is something they have lived in their lives and believe in.  They know that they have received the tradition from their parents and grandparents, and one of the hopes they have is that they will see the tradition passed on to their children and one day grandchildren.

This sense of ‘generation to generation’ is not only about faith, we do it with many other things as well.  Music is one example.  I remember when Becky was pregnant with Tali, our first, I used to have her stand next to my stereo speakers with her stomach pointed towards the speaker and I would play Grateful Dead music, hoping that somehow through osmosis the baby would grow to love the music that is so important to me.  We also do it with sports – how many young Baltimoreans are given a Ravens or Orioles jersey when they are babies, the parents and grandparents hoping that that will set the child on the path to being a passionate Baltimore sports fan.  Of course we also hope to transmit certain values to our children, a sense of what is important,  of what should be prioritized in life, perhaps an ethical code we hope they’ll use to navigate the world.

And we also, probably more today than ever, hope to give our children our political values.  The way political discourse has become so polarized, I imagine there are quite a few Republicans in the room who would cringe if their children became Democrats, and vice versa.  The problem with all of this, of course, is that for some reason it just doesn’t seem to work precisely the way that we as parents have planned.  Go back to the music for a second – for all of that time Becky spent standing in front of that stereo that was blasting Grateful Dead music Tali basically has no interest in it.  In terms of sports, even in Baltimore you can find the occasional Duke or Pittsburgh Steelers or Yankees fan, a young man or woman with just enough of an iconoclastic streak to buck the trends.

Maybe more than anything else it is the area of politics where our children will take, at least to us, an unexpected turn.  It has been interesting to follow the debate taking place within feminist circles over the last number of weeks about the way younger women in the primary elections and caucuses have been voting for Bernie Sanders and not Hillary Clinton.  This is making the older feminists crazy.  It came to a head a couple of weeks ago when former Secretary of State Madeline Albright warned women around the country that, and this is a direct quote, “there is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”  She has since apologized for the comment, but the fact that she made it in the first place shows you how frustrated the older generation of women is – or at least a segment of that generation – by the fact the their younger counterparts are supporting Bernie.  And in large numbers!  There are some statistics that show that more than %80 of women under thirty support Bernie, a 74 year old white man, and not Hillary Clinton, arguably one of the great feminist icons of our time.

This idea of the younger generation having its own mind is not exactly a new one.  Some of you may remember the 60s and the incredible revolution that occurred with the college generation, the effects of which we still feel in today’s world.  But I would push it back even farther than that, all the way to the Bible itself.  In the Torah that younger generation is symbolized by the figure of Joshua, the loyal servant of both God and Moses.  It is Joshua who is the field commander for the Israelites when they battle against Amalek, the quarterback on the field to Moses’ coach on top of the mountain.  In this week’s Torah portion Joshua, who is patiently waiting at  the foot of Mt. Sinai for Moses to return, calls out in alarm when he feels something has gone wrong in the Israelite camp.  Later on, in the book of Numbers, we know that Joshua will lead the ill fated mission of the spies when they are sent to scout out the Promised Land, and although the spies lose their faith, Joshua manages to stay true.  It is also Joshua who is filled with רוח חכמה – with the spirit of wisdom – in the very last verse of the Torah, when Moses dies and Joshua becomes the leader of Israel.  And it is interesting to note that Joshua has his own eponymously named biblical book, something that even the great Moses does not achieve.

But my favorite story about Joshua is found in the 27th chapter of the Book of Numbers.  It is in that chapter that God tells Moses that he will be dying soon, that he needs to begin to prepare the people for the next leader.  And I’ve always loved Moses’ response – very canny – he simply says ‘ok, then let God appoint a new leader, someone who will be able to handle the people, do all the things I’ve been doing, take care of all the problems.’  It is almost like Moses is saying to God – ‘go ahead and try to find someone who can do what I do.’  In other words, you’ll never find anybody, you’ll have to keep me around whether you like it or not.

God doesn’t hesitate.  ‘Joshua is right there Moses,’ God says.  ‘Right next to you.  Reach out your hand, וסמכת את ידך עליו –  put your hand on him!’  And what is always striking to me about that passage is that Joshua was standing right in front of Moses, and had been for years.  But Moses had no idea that Joshua had become his own person, with his own talents, his own leadership qualities, his own interests, his own life.  And it wasn’t until God said ‘there is Joshua’ that Moses realized the next generation really was ready to take over, and to begin to do things their own way.  Maybe Moses would agree with it, maybe he wouldn’t.  Most likely some of it he wouldn’t like at all, and some he would probably feel quite proud of.  But that wasn’t event the point.  The point was Moses had to let go, and let Joshua do it in his own way.

We might say the same for our own children and grandchildren.  We do our best to give them the tools they’ll need to live good lives and to be decent people, teaching them whatever we can in the relatively few years they spend living under our roofs.  But somehow, right in front of our eyes, almost without our knowing it, they become adults, with their own thoughts, tastes in music, values, sports affiliations, ways of being and doing Jewish, and even with their own political ideas and loyalties.  And if they don’t match with ours exactly, or even at all, our job at that point is to say so be it.

After all that is what we do our best to raise them to – to be thoughtful, independent individuals who will forge their own paths in every area of life.  That can be challenging at times, but it seems to me it is something to be celebrated, something that means we’ve done our work well.  May our children and grandchildren in turn do their work well, in their own time, and yes, in their own way.

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