by andy altman-ohr, staff writer
November 12, 2009
At the last Friday night Shabbat service I attended, the woman behind
me was wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt emblazoned with a skeleton
face that had a joint dangling from its mouth. Two seats to my right,
a man was talking about how he used to hang out backstage with the
Dead because his buddy was the band's pot grower. In the row in front
me, two women dressed in hippie clothes were strumming guitars.
Was I in the right place?
"I thought I smelled patchouli," my wife said.
We're pretty sure she was mistaken, but it was easy for a person's
senses to get tricked at Congregation Etz Chayim's Grateful Dead
Kabbalat Shabbat service on the night before Halloween.
At times, I wondered if I was really in a cozy sanctuary in Palo Alto
or in a cloudy haze during an amazing second-set "Estimated
Prophet" at Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland, circa 1985.
No, there wasn't any pot-smoking going on at Etz Chayim at least
none that I saw or smelled but many in the estimated gathering of
210 were clad in tie-dyed shirts and skirts, suede fringe vests,
'60s-style headbands and groovy shawls. I think I was the only one
wearing a necktie, but I didn't feel out of place: It was a trippy
Grateful Dead tie.
There was a "dancing bears" blanket hanging above the bimah, a guy
behind me yelled "Let Phil sing" and there were even a few people
twirling at the back of the room although if you're not familiar
with the Dead, those things probably mean nothing to you.
Me? I went to about 20 Dead shows from 1984 through 1995, the year of
leader Jerry Garcia's death. I wasn't quite a Deadhead, but I
definitely was excited when I heard about the (world's first?)
Grateful Dead Shabbat.
The event was part of Etz Chayim's five-year-old Fifth Friday
program: Whenever a month has five Fridays, Etz Chayim plans a
musical or unconventional Shabbat service for the fifth one. Previous
events highlighted the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, show tunes and Simon
and Garfunkel, to name just a few.
And while a regular Shabbat service draws about 50 people, a good
Fifth Friday gig pulls in three or four times that. For the Beatles
event, an overflow crowd of 350 showed up, spilling over into the
foyer and library. Not surprisingly, Beatles II is being planned for 2010.
On the night I attended, Grateful Dead songs pretty much formed the
entire service, and they were incorporated in several ways. Most
commonly, the congregation just sang them, backed by nine musicians
and six chorus singers.
In those instances, we sang the songs as written, with a tweak or two
here and there. For example, "What a long, strange trip it's been"
was changed to "What a long, strange week it's been." Each person had
the lyrics in a meticulously prepared 30-page siddur.
Other tweaks included: "Yah's got everything delightful. Yah's got
everything I need," with Yah (God) replacing "she" in "Sugar
Magnolia"; and "God bless!" instead of the commandment-breaking
phrase in "Uncle John's Band."
Additionally, some songs were divided up into responsive readings,
and some were used as silent meditations.
Each song was expertly picked for its spiritual meanings and adeptly
placed within the liturgy by congregant-guitarist Mitch Slomiak. He
also worked with rabbi-guitarist Ari Cartun on what was perhaps the
event's most creative aspect: adapting Hebrew prayers and songs to
Grateful Dead tunes.
For example, "V'Shamru" was sung to the tune of "Truckin' " and L'cha
Dodi to the tune of "Ripple." It wasn't always easy getting words and
melodies to click, Slomiak and Cartun told me, but it was inspired
Afterward, at the oneg, a cake decorated with the Dead's iconic,
colorful dancing bears was a big hit, and lines of people from as far
away as El Cerrito congratulated Cartun and band members on such a
fun and special night.
My only dismay: No typical Grateful Dead scene in the parking lot
beforehand. Oh, to have seen Deadheads peddling matzah balls instead
of hallucinogenic goo-balls.
Andy Altman-Ohr lives in Oakland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.