Dead, Schmed

So what's with all these Jewish Deadheads? Doug Gertner has a theory or two.

Doug Gertner became a convert to the secular religion that bloomed around the Grateful Dead when he first saw the band in concert during the early Seventies. Yet as transfixed as he was by the music, he was equally taken by the sight of certain audience members. "I was wandering around the lobby," he says, "and I remember thinking that Jerry Garcia must be wandering there, too, because there were so many Jerry lookalikes. And a lot of them were Jewish."

Gertner, who's also Jewish, has been percolating on this observation ever since--but only now is he ready to talk about it before a larger audience. A sociologist currently teaching management-development training at the Mountain States Employers Council, he's the main speaker and master of ceremonies for a Dead-oriented lecture set to take place Tuesday, August 13, at Denver's Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center. Its title is what Gertner refers to as "a perfect Deadhead irony": "Who Were the Grateful Dead and Why Were They Always Following the Jews Around?"

This title--paraphrased from a fan's random comment featured on a videotape of a late-Eighties Grateful Dead gig--is Gertner's way of deflating expectations. But he's compiled a weighty collection of anecdotes and scholarship from academic Jerry junkies across the country, and he hopes these observations will help others understand why so many followers of Judaism also follow the Dead. "I don't want to trivialize, minimalize, stereotype or otherwise degrade the Jewish people or practices that are part of the Jewish ritual by talking about this," Gertner says. "But I see definite links between the Jews and the Dead."

Link No. 1: "It's interesting to note how many members of the extended Grateful Dead family are Jewish," Gertner says. "Mickey Hart, the drummer, was raised Jewish; I've seen a picture of him at his bar mitzvah. Garcia had a lot of Jewish friends and collaborators, including David Bromberg and David Grisman, and the Dead's longtime publicist, Dennis McNally, is Jewish, too. The late Bill Graham, who was involved in the Dead's management, was a Holocaust survivor, and Graham's right-hand man and partner was another Jew, Steve 'Killer' Kahn. In fact, Steve's mother works at the Jewish Community Center here--so there's even a Denver Jewish connection to the Dead."

Gertner used to think that Garcia was Jewish, too. "After all," he says, "his mother's name was Ruth, which is often a Jewish name. After his death, I pretty much had my theory dispelled. But it's fair to say he had a Jewish soul--which is to say he was a mensch. He had a Jewish heart, even if he didn't have Jewish blood. So if he's not a natural Jew, he's an honorary one."

Link No. 2: "A cornerstone of the theory is the search for community," he points out. "When first-generation Jews came to this country, they stayed in their own communities and had their needs met that way. But second-generation Jews sought to assimilate and wanted little to do with Judaism--they wanted to become Americans. This left third-generation Jews with a void when they were looking for a community, as human beings do. As a result, many of the Jews who are part of the Deadhead generation, from the Sixties to the Nineties, found their way to the Dead to fill that void."

Link No. 3: Gertner notes that longtime Grateful Dead member Bob Weir has been quoted as talking about "misfit power." And Gertner adds, "I use that term, too. The Dead fan base is full of misfits in the sense that they look normal on the outside but don't feel like they belong anywhere. The Jew, meanwhile, has been described as the historic 'other,' always on the outside. So to me, that's consistent: the Grateful Dead fans being a community of misfits and others and the Jew being the other within secular and Christian American society."

Link No. 4: "Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the original homeland of the Dead, might be seen as the Holy Land--as the equivalent of Jerusalem and Israel," Gertner suggests. "But it might also be comparable to the shtetls, the Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe. That, to me, is an appropriate metaphor when compared to the Haight, which has something of a ghetto feel. It's also a community that's self-supporting outside of the culture. The term 'counterculture' was coined there--and the Jews, in a manner of speaking, lived as part of a counterculture in the shtetls. They didn't need to emulate or imitate mainstream cultures."

Link No. 5: "You're probably aware," Gertner says, "that Deadheads hang on every word of song lyric that's sung by the Dead and take incredible meaning from them. The way they study text is analogous to the most prized practice a Jew can undertake, which is the study of the Torah--in other words, the study of the sacred text in order to learn, and to gain from it new meanings and new insights. And in many ways, that's what a lot of Deadheads are doing."

These suppositions reprsent only a handful of Gertner's thoughts on this subject. But while his preoccupation with deciphering the Dead might seem unique, that's definitely not the case. While researching his topic, Gertner (who's taught classes on men and masculinity at the University of Colorado at Boulder and several other area colleges) ventured onto the Internet and discovered a slew of other thinkers on the same path. Among them is Rebecca Adams, an associate professor of sociology at the Unive-rsity of North Carolina at Greensboro. ("I'm also the president-elect of the Southern Sociological Society, which is some indication that my peers don't think I'm crazy," Adams says.)

A gerontologist by training, Adams made her reputation among Grateful Dead fanciers when she assigned students to go on tour with the Dead for three weeks in order to gather information for papers on Deadhead subculture. "That got a lot of publicity," Adams recalls. "Jerry offered to read the papers after the class, and he met with me right after the class was over. That kind of made me famous."

At present, Adams, who's not Jewish, is involved in researching a book tentatively called Deadheads: Community, Spirituality and Friendship. She's corresponded with Gertner about his ideas and sees both virtues and weaknesses in them.

"I've explained the predominance of Jews among Deadheads in terms of cultural compatibility rather than rebellion against Jewish culture, which is part of Doug's theoretical explanation," she says. "I see the Deadhead culture as a comfortable place for Jewish people to be. The commonalities are that they are both ritualistic, they're both spiritual and they're both very analytical and intellectual--and that's an area where other religions don't necessarily have the same commonality. Deadheads tried to analyze the structure of the shows so they could predict what would happen next. And they've been so supportive of my research. It's like I've got a thousand research assistants, because Deadheads are very analytical about their own lives. And that's a characteristic of Judaism--to study itself."

Leora Lawton is certainly an example of this characteristic. A New Jersey-based sociologist and demographer who describes herself as "an Orthodox Jewish Deadhead," she at one time proposed a full-blown study of the Deadhead universe but couldn't secure funding to complete it. Lawton, who's also been in contact with Gertner, is more critical of his views than Adams is.

"I told him that I don't agree with his assimilation hypothesis," Lawton says. "There may be something about the Dead that attracts Jews, but he never presented much evidence to me. Are Jews more proportionally attracted to the Dead than non-Jews? I don't know." In her opinion, Gertner's notions "sounded more like interesting journalism to me, which is fine. In terms of it being scientific, I just haven't seen the data. But I think Deadheads definitely represent a subculture that may be generalizable to other subcultures in terms of understanding their attractions."

The Gertner talk has proved attractive as well; representatives at the Jewish Community Center are surprised at the interest it's generated thus far. Gertner, meanwhile, plans to give those who wish to listen extra value for their time: Hal Aqua, a friend of Gertner's, is scheduled to sing "Ripple," a track from the Dead album American Beauty.

"There's an old type of Jewish music called a niggun," Gertner remarks. "It's a wordless melody that's used to invoke emotion and calls us to God's presence. And 'Ripple' ends with a 'la-dee-dee-dee-die' section that we're really going to draw out in order to emphasize that that song could be considered a niggun. Also, we may have a drum circle. It'll be a little Jewish Deadhead hootenanny.

"I don't want anyone to think that I'm deadly serious about this. I just want to say to people, 'What do you think of this?'" But, he adds, "I am consulting my rabbi.

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