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Shavuot and the Grateful Dead

Shavuot and the Grateful Dead

How I first received the Torah, bedecked in torn jeans and a tattoo.


Here's the thing about Shavuot -- we are celebrating the gift of the giving of the Torah to us, the Jewish people, on Mount Sinai. And since every single one of us, waiting at the bottom of the mountain with eager anticipation of this great gift, is unique, we all receive the Torah in the way we can best understand it. That's what I was explaining to my 7th grade Jewish studies class before inviting them to my third annual Shavuot dinner and late night learning session.

For four years, I was a Jewish studies teacher at a Los Angeles community day school (students are primarily from Reform and Conservative elementary feeder schools), where I started the tradition of inviting students over for a huge Shavuot feast that lasts until 11:45 p.m. The highlights of the evening include my various homemade cheesecakes (a traditional food on Shavuot) and the special guests I bring in to learn with us.

I accidentally started this tradition my first year at this school, when I was explaining to the class about the custom to stay up all night learning Torah on Shavuot as a tikkun (fixing) for the Jews who overslept the morning the Torah was given, instead of staying up all night with anticipation. I guess I made the all-night learning sound pretty cool, because when I jokingly asked if anyone wanted to join my friends and me, three students asked me if they could.

That first year, I had six current students, two former students from another school and about 18 friends. More friends showed up throughout the evening, and when the parents came to pick up their kids, they got caught up in the learning and stayed, too! Eventually, the kids and parents left and my friends and I went to our shul to learn with our teachers for the rest of the night. It was an unforgettable evening.

San Francisco 1995

As I explained all of this to my current class, a mysterious smile crept across my face, as I remembered the first time I celebrated Shavuot . . .

It was 1995, and although I was exploring making Jewish practice part of my life, I hadn't yet made a full commitment to Torah observance. At that time, I was working in the film industry in Los Angeles, never even thinking of becoming a teacher. And I could barely boil water let alone make cheesecake!

I was in San Francisco to see my favorite band, the Grateful Dead. And it was Shavuot.

They told me to stop by after the concert, no matter how late, they'd be up learning.

Over that previous year, I had made some really great friends who were "Deadheads" too, but they were also Torah observant. They obviously weren't planning on being at the concerts, but they were heading to San Francisco that same weekend for Shavuot to learn with one of their favorite rabbis. They wanted me to come with them, but I was determined to see The Dead. So they told me to stop by after the concert, didn't matter how late, they'd be up all night learning anyway, maybe I could do some learning with them.

After an awesome concert, I asked the friend I'd gone with if we could stop by the rabbi's to do some learning. Even though it was 2:30 in the morning, she agreed (after I told her that there might be some nice Jewish guys there!).

I was expecting that it would just be a few of my friends sitting around casually with the rabbi, but when we showed up in our jeans, t-shirts and with "dancing bears" temporarily tattooed on our cheeks, we were very embarrassed. The house was overflowing with people, most of whom I didn't know, dressed beautifully and immersed in the holy spirit of Yom Tov.

In a mortified state, we looked around and quickly headed for the sanctuary of the kitchen. Our sigh of relief turned to dismay when we noticed we were not alone in the kitchen. A young guy with a beard, black hat, Oy! The only "holy" thing about me was my jeans!

Just as we were about to leave not only the kitchen, but the whole experience, the man finished what he was doing and said, "Nu? What was the set list? Was it a Jerry or Bobby opener?"

It's great that you're learning Torah; don't worry about how you're dressed!

My friend and I smiled the biggest smiles! We knew that he wasn't just asking what songs were played in the concert and if Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir sang the first song. We understood in our hearts that he was telling us, "It is great that you have come to learn some Torah and that you shouldn't worry about how you're dressed." We felt better. After all, this holy-roller was a "Deadhead" too!

So we went into a smaller room with some of my women friends who had come up from L.A. and began to learn the most beautiful Torah. We heard what we needed to hear. We understood it the way we could and should, right at that moment.

Every year on Shavuot, I am at a different place with myself and in my relationship to God, and each "receiving" of the Torah seems to magically fit the place that I am at.

My annual Shavuot dinner with my students are always very special. I have a lot of current students, former students and friends over with cheesecake, lasagna and laughter. We go around the table and everyone speaks about why the Torah is important to them. I watch with a smile as my friends' expressions revealed their awe at my students' lovely, deep answers. And I realize that for every Jew, "receiving" Torah is the greatest gift of all.


June 4, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 42

(41) Laurie, May 28, 2017 3:10 PM


I cant vouch for this story but it's been told in my town many times over the last few decades so I suspect that it's true.

A few young travelers were having a Shabbat meal at the home of an observant family. The conversation came around to the Grateful Dead and it turned out that all were fans. The travelers said "yeah, there's always something wild at a Dead concert. One time in xxxx (don't remember the city) a couple got up on stage and got married there!

The host couple looked at each other and said "that was us."

(40) ruth housman, May 24, 2012 5:19 PM

Terrapin Station

Actually I think the joke is on us as The Dead ARE grateful and this is a story about soul and the trsnsmomigration of souls and the MOM in this as in the word upside down is W O W! Remember the turtle dove in songs of peace & how slowly the turtle does move. Of time and the River. In exist IS exit. It's not over when, it's over. How do I know? God keeps telling me so and the keys are in the words across Babel.

(39) Brenne Meirowitz, June 7, 2011 9:02 PM

Thank you Batsheva!

I shared this article with my friend on facebook. I'm also an observant Deadhead! Chag Samayach!

(38) ruth housman, June 3, 2010 7:04 AM

dead heads

Hi, your very sweet article, and, by the way, I still love those songs and though I wasn''t quite the groupie, I think this group was fabulous. Yay, Cherry Garcia ice cream! I am reminded of the term, deadheads for another reason, and that is, the garden. I am an avid gardener. As you might know, picking off the deadheads, of those spent flowers, is important to ensure that the energy of the plant goes into producing more flowers or it will go to seed. So I am constantly doing this, particularly with the Cosmos (another metaphor?) I self-identified with the sixties and now, being in my Sixties, there is a nostalgia for those times of vibrant social action... It was when I came of age, meaning it was a time of great social protest and social ferment here in the US. due to a war that was felt by so many, especially the young, to be unfair: Hell No, We Won''t Go! The songs of that generation were the songs of freedom. I think it''s great to be reminded of this at Shavuos. You were welcomed to the group to study, despite your somewhat grubby appearance. But what''s most important is the spirit. The greatest gift of all is adherence to principles of tikkun olam and I think you were a breath of fresh air. Remember, The Answer is Blowing In the Wind (Bob Dylan).... for us all.

(37) Arapeta, June 3, 2010 7:04 AM

Whats Frum?

Really enjoying the real stories of people being drawn to our Creator. I''m pretty new to the Jewish faith. What do people mean by "Frum?"

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