Phishers of men

Young Jews by the thousands follow the Phish tour, looking for God in a haze of mushrooms and acid. A rock 'n' roll rabbi wants to lead them out of mammon into the land of milk and honey.

By Felix Vikhman
August 21, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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The setting sun is casting an orange glow on the Oswego County Airport as the Phishheads arrive. Intermixed with the traditional Volkswagen Westphalia campers are SUVs, late-model sedans, RVs and tie-died school buses, all driving in through the front gates, some having waited in line for six hours. Tents sprout like mushrooms, forming a city resembling a Kosovar refugee camp; you can walk for an hour in any direction and not reach its edge. Kids in their early teens slowly maneuver along the crowded runways on skateboards, yelling out the names of the dozen drugs they have for sale.

Thirty years after Woodstock and four years after the demise of the Grateful Dead, a generation of neo-hippies has turned to Phish to keep the torch of peace and love aflame. Here in upstate New York, 70,000 are expected for three days of concerts and camping.


Amid the growing swell of dreadlocks and Birkenstocks, a small group faces east toward Jerusalem, bows forward in prayer and commences Friday night Sabbath services. Wearing a long, black satin jacket that looks like a robe and a large black hat, Rabbi Shmuel Skaist leads the prayers. Tall, lanky and stoic, he doesn't use a prayer book. The rest of his group, who number six and call themselves Gefiltefish, help me and a few stragglers by pointing to English translations of the Hebrew prayers everyone else is singing.

Above us, an Israeli flag with inverted colors hangs from a pole attached to Gefiltefish's luxurious 37-foot motor home. The Gefiltefish crew rented it two weeks ago in New York after flying in from Jerusalem. From New York they drove to Atlanta for the first Phish show of the summer tour to begin a form of Keruv, or Jewish outreach. It's a highly unorthodox approach to one of Orthodox Judaism's most deeply revered practices. In their attempt to raise money for their project, Gefiltefish organizers Skaist and Victor Hyman had claimed that upward of 30 percent of the kids on the Phish lot are Jewish. But even with that estimate, the two organizers were turned down several times. They were told that a Phish tour wasn't an appropriate place for Orthodox Jews and that their presence would lend tacit approval to the tour's hedonistic practices. Pleasures everyone in Gefiltefish is keenly aware of: Collectively, they have seen more than 100 shows between them.

Still, the two organizers managed to raise about $40,000 from Hyman's wealthy relatives, who control a Jewish philanthropic organization, and from a private benefactor who is underwriting the bulk of the expenses but who prefers not to be identified because of the radical nature of the Gefiltefish idea: in the words of Rabbi Skaist, "to demonstrate that Judaism is viable in any situation and under any circumstance."


A man of his word, the rabbi tilts his head to the heavens while gawkers stand in a crescent at the periphery of the campsite, dumbfounded by the prayers. Some snap pictures. Others trickle in to join the services. The men stand apart from the women. I decide to join in. We start humming to ourselves, but soon we're singing out loud. The men join hands, as do the women, and form circles that spin in dance. Faces beam. I feel like I'm taking part of some kind of Dionysian revelry. "Shabbos! Shabbos!" we yell out in song, arms reaching for the heavens with the passion of teenyboppers at a Spice Girls concert.

It's a strange juxtaposition of celebrations. Religious law holds that on the Sabbath Jews are forbidden to light a fire. Meanwhile, roman candles explode above us every few seconds. On the opposite side of the Gefiltefish RV, over where the drug dealers duck in to make their deals, a shirtless, buff man twirls two strings with fireballs at their ends, his body and arms swaying to the rhythm of a drum circle beside him. And people look at us like we're weird.

For the life of me, I never thought that Sabbath services could be fun. I'd see the Orthodox in my neighborhood walk to synagogue Friday nights, wearing their black hats and white shirts and think they were sheep being herded by an imaginary whip. I haven't been to synagogue since my Bar Mitzvah, but I know that my friends who are forced to go by their parents on the High Holidays consider the service a chore. The rest of the year, fewer and fewer Jews are going to synagogue at all. What to do about the dwindling numbers is being debated by rabbis and Jewish scholars the world over and discussed in prominent Jewish journals like Tikkun. They point out that it's not only synagogue that Jews are turning away from. Israelite children in the Diaspora have never been more likely than today to be raised with no semblance of a Jewish upbringing. "The Silent Holocaust" is what many in the Orthodox and even Reform circles are calling it: Jews by the hundreds of thousands shedding all ties to their religion and culture through intermarriage, conversion to other faiths or plain apathy.


Like Victor Hyman three years ago, most of the Jewish kids on the Phish lot wouldn't think twice about having a glass of milk with their breakfast ham. One of my closest friends for nearly a decade, Hyman is 23 and maintains a Woody Allen-esque neurotic-Jew disposition that I routinely tease him about. It's hard to describe how shocked I was the summer he told me about his leap of faith.

Growing up in suburban Toronto, Hyman and I were devout atheists. In the 12th grade we ate bacon double cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish High Holidays. Another time, he walked out of his family's Passover dinner, proclaiming that they were all hypocrites. After dropping out of college he visited Israel in 1997. Seemingly out of nowhere he found God and became Baal T'Shuva, a secular Jew who embraces God, or, as many of us secularites call them, a born-again Jew. Living in Jerusalem, he now studies at a Jewish seminary called a yeshiva.


Except for Rabbi Skaist and the Israeli-born Esther Zeren, the rest of the Gefiltefish are also Baal T'Shuva. They were chosen specifically because they were once Phishheads themselves, and understand the spiritual yearnings of those who follow the tour. the tour. Obviously, New-Age hippie beliefs didn't die with the '60s, and today they permeate Phishhead culture with talk of "Mother Earth" and holistic Zen-light values.

The four Baal T'Shuva Gefiltefish members were searching for spiritual guidance in their Phish days -- which they readily admit they found more in hallucinogenic drugs than in religion. They figure they know better than anyone how confused most modern Jews are about their own religion, and how appealing a Phish tour can be to a suburban adolescent just beginning to ponder the most basic of existential paradoxes. That's why Gefiltefish is here -- to answer any questions fans might have about Orthodox Judaism and, as Hyman told me, "to provide a Jewish space."

But why, out of all the bands in the world, did they choose Phish?


Ask any teenager growing up in a "Jewish suburb" (most major cities in North America have at least one), and they'll tell you that a disproportionate number of Phish fans are Jewish. Gefiltefish's claim that 30 percent of Phish's fans are Jewish may be exaggerated, but they certainly have no problem finding Jews anywhere on tour.

The surface explanation for the phenomenon is that two of the four members of Phish are Jewish. But that doesn't explain why other bands with Jewish members don't have the same following. Joey Ramone, after all, is Jewish. "Jews are a spiritual people," says 28-year-old Hillel Zeren as we sit around eating lunch. "It only makes sense that we gravitate to Phish tour."

The history of Judaism is one of travel, he says, the early Jews wandering through the desert for 40 years after fleeing bondage in Egypt, then across the world after being expelled from Israel by the Romans 2,000 years ago. Further, he notes how interwoven music is in religious ceremonies and the premium the culture places on community. "What is Phish tour if not a traveling community of music fans?"


But he doesn't stop there, arguing that a quest for spirituality is actually inherent in Jews. To prove his point he cites a story from the Torah: To guarantee his promise to Abraham that one day all Jews would recognize him as their father, God placed a speck of higher spirituality in every Jewish soul. Thus, Zeren theorizes, minus a knowledge of God, Jews search for novel ways to exercise their spirituality.

Assorted hippie kids have joined the Gefiltefish circle for conversation and a free lunch. Except for their curled sideburns and yarmulkes, Zeren and Hyman -- wearing stained slacks and dirty T-shirts, munching on kugel and potato salad -- are hard to distinguish from the rest.

Not wanting to offend, I preface my comments about Jews and Phish by saying, "This is going to come off as crass and materialistic ..."

While hippie spiritualism is youthfully romantic, I say, it is also based more on mammon than piety. "Think about it," I say: Taking the summer off to go on tour requires the kind of money that only a leisurely suburban lifestyle could provide. Plus, as a form of rock 'n' roll, Phish's music is as innocuous as Kenny G's "jazz." The Clash, Phish is not. The lyrics are farcical. Words are used for cadence rather than intended meaning. The jams -- long and trippy -- lack the rebellious anger and intensity of most of today's popular rock. Even the culture, drugs and all, is not so radical; many suburban parents could understand it all from their hippie days.


The lunch crowd goes silent, but Zerzen holds his ground. While my argument may be true, he says, Phish tour, nevertheless, played a large role in his becoming Baal T'Shuva. And he doesn't downplay the fact that magic mushrooms and LSD were an integral part of the process. "It made me realize there was something beyond me," he says, "something larger than myself."

Zerzen was 21 when he first began experimenting with hallucinogens. It was his first year of college, where he was enrolled in a financial program. He had family problems, he says, and he found himself consciously turning to drugs and Phish shows for spiritual uplift. But it wasn't until he had a bad trip that he felt the presence of a higher power.

"July 23, 1991 at a Phish show in Washington, D.C.," he says. "I remember the date."

The acid was working him over. The music was inaudible to him ("which sucks because I heard tapes of the show and Phish was on that night"). The band's legendary 20- and 30-minute jams were drowned out by a monologue running out of control in his head. A friend quoted Grateful Dead lyrics to him in attempt to bring him down, but the words were useless. When he finally came down, he says, his understanding of the world had changed.


He began using acid regularly, about every three weeks, to induce meditation.

"This was a very powerful thing and I wanted to use it for a higher purpose," he says. "But I didn't have a reference point for my new spiritual reality."

Eventually, Zerzen's religious Jewish roommate pointed him toward Judaism. His conversion was slow. At first, he would skip the cheese on his hamburger. Only after he spent his first full Sabbath with friends of his parents did he decide to pursue a pious life. He changed his major to psychology. When he reached graduate school, he stopped dosing. Not completely sold on Judaism, he still preferred to say "higher power" rather than "God." After he graduated with a master's degree, his girlfriend took him rock climbing in Colorado. That summer, on the summit of a mountain, they took off their clothes and ate mushrooms. With the wind blowing across his bare skin and his senses enlivened by the chemicals, he felt the presence of God, in him and everywhere he looked. A Jewish God.

Within weeks he had bought a plane ticket to Israel, where he met and married Esther and has studied Torah at a yeshiva ever since.


"I'm not here to proselytize," Rabbi Skaist tells me as we walk through the campgrounds. "If some kid decided to become religious after a two-hour discussion with me, I'd tell them they need psychological help."

That makes him different from some of the other religious groups on the lot. A hundred feet from where the Gefiltefish RV is parked, a van flies a large flag with a Star of David and the logo "Twelve Tribes of Israel." The flag belongs to a Jews for Jesus outfit, a growing sect of Protestantism often accused of being a cult. (Orthodox Jewish groups have formed the organization Jews for Jews to combat their evangelical message.) Standing in front of the flag, a vaguely hippie-looking woman is preaching as if she were standing on a soapbox. The crowd on the strip walks by, paying no attention.

Meanwhile, seven shows into the tour, the good rabbi can't walk 15 feet without some hippie he'd met earlier running up to him and giving him a hug. He stops often to chat about how Phish is playing this year. "Their jams aren't going anywhere. I don't know, man, but I've been really disappointed by this tour," he says to a particularly red-eyed kid who nods in agreement.

The rabbi moves on, briskly walking down the runway and handing out free stickers. The Phishheads snap them up, but look puzzled by the logo. Skaist explains the that Hebrew letters on the sticker read "Lama," the name of a popular Phish song and also the word "why" in Hebrew. Phishheads understand the double meaning and ask about the Web address printed at the bottom of the sticker. "We're Jews on Phish tour," he tells them, often inviting the kids back to the RV for a more meaningful conversation. He figures he has 50 such conversations a day this way.

Back in Israel, Skaist might wear a Phish shirt on Tuesdays when he plays his regular club gig at Mike's Place, a bar frequented by the non-religious and one of the few places you can hear live music in Jerusalem. Here, though, it's the standard white shirt and black pants. His concern is that if he dresses like a hippie, the kids might not understand what he's all about.

Skaist, 34, has six children, a Jewish-themed grunge album in his past and ticket stubs from 18 Phish shows before this tour. Phish doesn't tour the Middle East so he plans his frequent excursions to North America to coincide with concerts.

Earlier this year, Skaist wrote an essay titled "Teaching a Rabbi to Phish," and posted it on JamBands, a Web magazine dedicated to hippie-rock music and culture. In it, the rabbi explains that when a student of his at Bar Ilan University first introduced him to Phish, he wasn't impressed. He theorized the reason was because music is culturally relative:

A musician doesn't write music for the culture. The culture develops around the music and the persona of the band.

The theory would also explain why it took me so long to get into Phish. I did not have the cultural background to appreciate it. I grew up in a strict orthodox environment where secular music was taboo. Although I sneaked a lot of good music into my system (Beatles, Floyd, Jethro Tull, Zeppelin, etc.), my exposure to the cultural aspects of Rock and Roll in general was minimal and my exposure to jam bands was non-existent. I was not properly equipped to interpret the music.

Personally, I don't think the rabbi gives himself enough credit. While the Skaist family has a long lineage of important rabbis, he's always been a bit of black sheep. In his teenage years growing up in Queens, N.Y., and Baltimore, Md., he hung out with secular Jews and gentiles, playing Missile Command and Asteroids in the arcades, lounging in pool halls and doing drugs. In 1982, he went to see Pink Floyd, a show that he now admits he can hardly remember.

When he was 17, a rabbi picked up on his fondness for music and burgeoning passion for literature and philosophy, and encouraged him to examine it through a religious paradigm. By the time he was 20, he had stopped doing drugs and was well on his way to becoming what he is now: a rabbi and professor of Jewish philosophy, who, for his course books, uses Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and a play by George Bernard Shaw (which is of note because Shaw was an avowed humanist -- read atheist).

"Judaism has to stand up to the test of outside knowledge," he tells me. It's a statement that I find shocking considering the closed nature of his ultra-Orthodox community.

I ask him to compare his Orthodox Judaism with the New-Agey spiritualism found on Phish tour. "They are both quests for truth," he replies. For Skaist, each scene has its truth and the knowledge gained from each is valuable.

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"I have not studied enough about the nature of the universe to know whether there is a God," says Jacob Goldsmith. At 18, Goldsmith is remarkably articulate and open to talking about himself.

"Music is religious," he says, noting that he finds spirituality in the free-form jams of Phish, the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. Goldsmith is the average kid you find hanging outside the Gefiltefish RV. He wears a tie-died Phish shirt, and his hair is long and curly, falling down his neck like a hanging fern. He lives with his parents in Chicago's upper-middle class Jewish suburb of West Rogers, where earlier this summer Benjamin Smith shot down three Orthodox Jews in his spree of neo-Nazi rage. Jacob's background is Reform, and while he was active in Jewish youth groups and Chicago's larger Jewish community when he was younger, he's no longer involved in anything explicitly Jewish. That is, other than Phish, we joke.

It's why a few shows back, when he saw Gefiltefish's Israeli flag blowing in the wind, he decided to check it out. "I found Rabbi Skaist amazingly personable," he says. Through subsequent conversations with the rabbi, Goldsmith says, he is again feeling a connection to the Jewish community and is even thinking about going to Israel to learn more about it.

Like most of the kids on the lot, Goldsmith will undoubtedly grow out of his hippie stage. He might even come to feel nostalgic for the days when he could see all the facets of the universe as just different dimensions of a giant yin and yang. It's also possible that the seeds Rabbi Skaist and Gefiltefish planted in him will blossom, with Goldsmith one day becoming Baal T'Shuva. But I doubt it. Orthodox Judaism requires what seems to me to be unimaginable dedication and sacrifice. If you have never directly felt the presence of an almighty, you would never feel compelled to follow the tenets of Jewish law.

Which prompts the question whether Gefiltefish will, or could, have any lasting spiritual effect on Phishheads. Faith is ineffable, like being rocked on LSD; you can never really describe it to someone who has never experienced it. Especially to people as religiously confused as myself, it's impossible to explain the power of epiphany -- or bitachon, in Hebrew. The concept is too foreign. As much as I enjoyed being let into the Orthodox world for a couple of shows, I'm still left wondering. If Orthodox Jews have resorted to Phish tour in their attempts to save North American Jewry from oblivion, maybe the boat has already sunk and all Skaist and company are doing is fishing for the few survivors.

Felix Vikhman

Felix Vikhman is an associate editor for Shift.

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