The Temple of the Dead

I am a member of two tribes, but only one of them has my heart and soul

Photograph by Redferns
Deadheads at Radio City Music Hall in 1980.

During the high holy days, I traditionally contemplate my life and its meaning. I knew it was a Jewish holiday last week not because of a call from my Aunt Bessie or from my temple (or from the beautiful weather), but because my old camp friends all changed their Facebook statuses to “L’shanah tovah.”

Which, to be perfectly honest, I had to Google. Well, slap my face if the first result that came up didn’t say Judaism 101: Rosh Hashanah. Really, Judaism 101, as if God was calling me a dummy! Then I sheepishly realized that the holiday was not in fact called “L’shanah tovah,” but was just the greeting meaning “Happy New Year.”

I blame this (as well as so many other things) on my parents. We were raised by two agnostic Jews, which basically meant that we were Jewish in culture only, which further translated just meant food. Baking hamantaschen with my grandpa or matzoh brei with my grandma was the full extent of our religious training. I was always looking for something more intense and revealing. Something that actually felt real and other.

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And then I attended my first Grateful Dead concert at Radio City Music Hall. I did not yet own my own concert T-shirt, so I wore my 1980 standard white cowboy boots, jeans and a pink silk blouse that my mom got while living in Japan in the '50s. With my middle part keeping my long brown hair out of my face, I inhaled and soaked it all in. And at that moment, I became a member of the tribe.

This was a tribe that I chose, or better, who chose me. The people around me became instant brothers and sisters, all there through a common love of the music and energy that we all felt coursing through our blood. The music carried me into spaces and thoughts that kept leaving a smile on my face. Everything started to make sense. I danced and swirled and sang and felt whatever it is that I thought religion or spirituality is supposed to offer. I saw God that night and his name was Jerry Garcia.

The few times I’ve gone to temple in my life, I’ve also felt a connection to the people there. There was a familiarity and a general feeling of acceptance – although a distinct lack of tie-dye. I always liked it. It was fun to be on this team. The davening sounded like a comforting memory from somewhere unknown to me, but it all somehow made sense and also made me happy.

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It did not, however, get inside my skull and bones the way the Dead did. Seeing a Dead show was an experience that stayed inside of me for months, and when I felt empty again, I knew it was time to go to another concert. It was like a 30-day shot of “Thank you, Lord” and then I needed another fix, which I did again and again and again.

I stopped going to see them religiously just around the time I left New York in 1984, but they were always there in my heart. Thankfully in 1991, in matching tie-dye dresses, I brought my 5-year-old daughter to see the band at the Forum in Los Angeles. Jerry would die a few years later, and I feel so relieved and (forgive the pun) grateful that she got to experience her mama’s true religion just once. I’ve since been to the various incarnations of the remaining Dead members, but it has never quite been the same.

The temple, however, remains. And I know that I am always welcome to go sit in with the tribe and at least feel those distant memories of my past. But the jubilation will always remain at my true temple of the Dead.

Tags: music