A CT synagogue is finding a new way to worship – through the Grateful Dead – The Advocate

Posted By on May 23, 2021

STAMFORD Jeff Pardo found the Grateful Dead because he wanted to be just like his older brother. After all, they shared a room, so listening to the same music seemed like a prerequisite for coexisting. His propinquity for the jam band was minor, at first.

I told everyone Im a Deadhead, too, even though I didnt know that much about the music, Pardo said.

Then came 1979. Pardo was 15. He tagged along with his brother to a Grateful Dead show, and in one night, he went from Bronx teenager to Dead devotee.

Pardo has followed the Dead religiously ever since. He has found other Deadheads online, at shows, and now, at Temple Sinai in Stamford.

Jeff Pardo, who leads the Temple Heads a group of Deadheads out of Temple Sinai in Stamford poses with a Jerry Garcia doll at his home in Stamford, Conn., on Thursday May 20, 2021. Though his cadre of Jewish Dead lovers is skews secular, the Temple decided to put on a Dead-themed Shabbat service on Friday afternoon featuring Grateful Dead songs set to traditional music and vice versa.

The Grateful Deads pull is so strong at the synagogue that Pardo and a cohort of other worshipers all Jewish, all Deadheads are holding a virtual Shabbat service Friday to meld together the musical with the spiritual.

Pardo, in late 2019, became the de facto leader of Temple Heads, a cohort of synagogue members who love the Dead. The Temple Heads is just one of many Sinai Circles at the synagogue little groups that work a lot like affinity housing on college campuses.

Rabbi Jay TelRav knows very little about the Dead, but hes more than happy to facilitate the service because it lets people connect with Judaism in a way they wouldnt have before. He realized that not every congregant at his progressive, Reform temple found profound value in services. There had to be another way, he thought, to get people more involved in the synagogue without piety being a prerequisite.

Theres just an awful lot of people who dont get a lot out of prayer, TelRav said. Wanting to find a raison detre for the congregation and their lives led to breaking the mold a little bit and reminding them that its not just about prayer. Judaism is a community. Its a culture, its a civilization and it goes way beyond just prayer, so this gives people permission to thrive in that.

Some of the Sinai Circles are profoundly religious Torah Nerds, for example, focuses on the sacred Jewish text but Temple Heads took a more secular approach to faith.

There are a lot of Jewish Deadheads. Theres no scientifically accurate way to quantify the number. Still, some non-scientific research suggests that Jewish people make up between 15 and 30 percent of the overall Deadhead population, even though only 2.6 percent of Americans are Jewish.

Academics have long attempted to answer why there are so many Jewish Deadheads and there are a handful of prevalent theories.

The most common explanations, according to sociologist Leora Lawton, are the spiritual quest and cultural familiarity hypotheses. In brief, Jewish people love the Dead because it feels analogous to their religious and cultural lives.

Douglas Gertner, another Jewish Deadhead who has written about the phenomenon, argued in an essay that secular, assimilated Jews needed to reconnect with spirituality and found it in the Grateful Dead subculture. All the holes left behind by higher power got filled with music and lyrics, he said.

That explanation hits familiar notes for Pardo, who grew up attending an Orthodox synagogue. He wasnt religious then and isnt particularly so now, so worshiping felt like a chore, he said.

I found no connection. There was no spirituality for me. There was nothing. It was just something I had to do because my parents made me do it, he said.

Enter the Grateful Dead. The music made the stars align in cosmic glory for him in a way prayer never had.

But Lawton thinks the prevalence of Jewish Deadheads goes beyond just familiarity. As Jewish people went from being immigrants to being considered Americans, Lawtons says they started making waves in American culture.

Young Jewish Americans became less socially and culturally isolated during the 1960s, just as the Grateful Dead began to pick up speed. All the social forces surrounding Jewish Americans at the time, including their assimilation into white American culture and their presence in the music industry, let them have a place among the Deadheads, Lawton said.

There are moments in history where things come together that make things possible that couldnt have been possible in an earlier point of history and couldnt be possible at a later point in history because too many conditions have changed, said Lawton, who is herself an Orthodox Jew. Thats what I think happened with Jews and the Grateful Dead.

To Lawton, Dead shows feel so Jewish because of the profound relationship between fans and the live shows. Mickey Hart is the Deads only Jewish member, but Jewish Deadheads helped create the communal experience. Essentially, the spiritual connection for Jewish fans happened because they made it that way, he said.

In preparation for the Temple Heads Shabbat service, Pardo read Lawtons work on the Grateful Dead. He even invited her to watch the ceremony via Zoom.

On Friday, TelRav will read prayers over Grateful Dead staples like the song Ripple. But Pardo said other songs stand for themselves, like Attics of My Life.

Its not hard to see why. The Dead sound like theyre invoking a higher power in the song.

Bent my ear to hear the tune and closed my eyes to see, sing Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh, making a nod to a Catholic prayer. When there were no strings to play, you played to me.

At the Friday service, that same sentiment will transcend religions.

veronica.delvalle@hearstmediact.com

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A CT synagogue is finding a new way to worship - through the Grateful Dead - The Advocate

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