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Examining links between Judaism and the Grateful Dead

Rabbi Moshe Shur, who makes Jewish-themed folk-rock albums, combines Jewish prayers with Grateful Dead songs.

FALLS VILLAGE, Conn. - A tribe of like-minded believers, with nomadic tendencies, who assimilate into the broader culture but then congregate together for ceremonies seeking spiritual fulfillment - it’s a description that might fit, broadly speaking, for the Jewish community.

Or the community of Deadheads, those most faithful fans of the granddaddy of jambands, the Grateful Dead.

A link has long been posited between the worlds of Judaism and of the band. One professor presented an academic paper on the perceived connections at a 2007 symposium on the Dead held at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Now it’s the topic of a weekend event commencing tonight at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn. Playfully called “Blues for Challah’’ (a pun on the 1975 Dead album “Blues for Allah’’), the confab will feature Grateful Dead-inspired meditation and prayer, an examination of Jewish themes in Dead lyrics, and guest rabbis who will muse on their experiences straddling both worlds. Organizers are expecting 50 or more attendees, mostly (if not exclusively) Jewish, who will bunk down at the compound and make connections between their religious and musical lives in the woodsy setting of the Connecticut Berkshires.

Is there really a connection here?

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Sixteen years after the death of band leader Jerry Garcia and the demise of the band (reconfigured offshoots continue to tour), time has helped the Deadhead world achieve a patina of respectability. But one’s tie-dyed leanings were long seen as a sensitive matter in the mainstream world. A subtle, coded language would help one Deadhead identify another.

“Sometimes you wouldn’t know it by looking at them, but you see a telltale sign - a sticker on their car, a Jerry Garcia tie, or quoting from Grateful Dead lyrics at odd moments - and you catch them,’’ said Barry Smolin, host of a popular Dead-related “The Music Never Stops’’ show on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. “It’s that ability to assimilate and yet practice your faith in the sacred space that is a Grateful Dead show.’’

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Steve Silberman, a San Francisco-based author who has published extensively on the band and written liner notes for key albums, reflected that the world of Deadheads offered him a dose of spiritual experience he lacked as the offspring of a secular Jewish household.

“My grandparents’ most important observation of Jewish life all year was to make sure I didn’t look like a slob in temple on High Holy Days. It was a suburban, almost despiritualized form of Judaism,’’ he said. “Stumbling into the Grateful Dead community was like finding a tribe of people who were completely committed to tikkun olam,’’ he added, referencing the Jewish imperative to repair the world, “and also had a regular experience of spiritual transformation at shows.’’

The self-selected tribe of Deadheads indeed proved particularly attractive to modern American Jews craving a sense of community and spirituality that lacked dogma, according to Eric Silverman, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at Wheelock College.

“In a sense, the Grateful Dead is a religion that has no theology. As long as you respect others, it’s whatever you make of it. And I think that resonates with modern Judaism, at least to many assimilated Jews,’’ he said.

But the appeal is not limited to Jews of a more secular bent. Rabbi Moshe Shur, a 30-year fixture of Jewish life at Queens College who has released a series of Jewish-themed folk-rock albums, will lead an Orthodox prayer service tonight at the retreat.

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Shur first came across the music of the Dead when he lived on a California commune led by famed clown/activist Wavy Gravy. Shur said he recalls jamming informally with Garcia and other band members out on the lawn.

He makes a point of noting he left that culture (and its “destructive elements’’) behind when he later became a rabbi. But he retained a fondness for the music, recording covers of Dead classics and even re-setting Jewish prayers to their melodies. This weekend he’ll lead the Sabbath prayer of divine praise “Adon Olam’’ to the tune of the Dead’s “Ripple.’’ Shur cited the reference in that song to “a fountain that was not made by the hands of man.’’

“When I sang that phrase and I put ‘Adon Olam’ to the next phrase, it seemed very natural, because I thought it was saying the same thing,’’ he reflected, before breaking into a few lines of song.

Silverstein allowed that there could be a self-perpetuating element to all of this.

“Maybe this partly becomes a Jewish experience not because there’s anything inherent, but because we’ve defined it as such,’’ he argued. “Jewish Deadheads like to think of themselves as having a unique experience, but it’s quite possible that Jews who like other kinds of music have the very same thinking. But there definitely seems to be something there.’’

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Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.