Shavuot and the Grateful Dead

Shavuot and the Grateful Dead

Bob Weir and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead performing at the Mid-Atlantic Inaugural Ball during the Obama Inaugural in January 2009. Photo by dbking/Flickr
Bob Weir and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead performing at the Mid-Atlantic Inaugural Ball during the Obama Inaugural in January 2009. Photo by dbking/Flickr

Here’s the thing about Shavuot — we are celebrating the gift of the giving of the Torah to 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 seventh grade Jewish studies class before inviting them to my annual Shavuot dinner and late night learning session.

For four years, I was a Jewish studies teacher at a Los Angeles community day school where I started the tradition of inviting students over for a Shavuot feast that lasts until 11:45 p.m. The highlights of the evening include my various homemade cheesecakes and the special guests I bring in to learn with us.

I accidentally started this tradition my first year at the school when I was explaining to the class about the custom of staying stay up all night learning Torah as a tikun (fixing) for the Jews who overslept the morning the Torah was given.

As I explained all this to my current class, a 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.

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.

After an awesome concert, I asked the friend I’d gone with if we could stop by the rabbi’s house.

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 “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, as we encountered a young guy with a beard, black hat…oy! The only “hol(e)y” 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?”

My friend and I smiled. We knew he wasn’t just asking what songs were played 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.”

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 dinners with my students are always 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.

Reprinted with permission from

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