Scott A. Tepper
#BaalTefilla #DeadHead #ShalomAleichemHeyNow

Purim is for Deadheads

(Note: A Deadhead is a devoted fan of the American rock band The Grateful Dead. If you are not conversant in the Grateful Dead canon, you may encounter unfamiliar turns of phrase. These are mostly quotations or paraphrases of Grateful Dead lyrics. Now go and study.)

Purim is the Deadheads’ chag (festival).

Deadhead Jews certainly love the meaning in all Jewish festivals: the freedom of Passover, the introspection of the Yamim Nora’im, the light of Hanukkah, even the sadness of Tish’a be-Av (and the hope of what’s after.)

But Purim is a celebration of extremes and ironic juxtapositions and reversals, wrapped up in a satire. It’s a celebration of being in the middle of strange happenings, those in plain sight and those hidden. “Trouble ahead, trouble behind.” This is Deadhead territory.

The Purim story progresses due to what appear to be random simple twists of fate. One of these is a literal roll of the dice. The festival is even named after dice. “Purim” is the Hebrew plural of an ancient Farsi word for one die. The Steinzaltz edition of Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) includes a picture of an old-time Assyrian stone die. Real old-time – those particular merry Mesopotamians were “casting lots” a good 500 years before the Purim deal went down.

Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter often wrote about luck and chance, with gambling a metaphor for the game of life (the ultimate game of chance):

  • The optimistic gambler in “Loser” implores the cards themselves, “Come to Daddy on an inside straight.”
  • The prudent gambler in “Deal” counsels, “Watch each card you play, and play it slow / Wait until your deal come round.”
  • Conversely, the shlimazel “Tennessee Jed” perceives prophetic life advice from a slot machine: “The wheels turned ‘round and the letters read – better get back to Tennessee, Jed.”
  • A particularly hapless soul “Sat down for a game” with the “Dire Wolf.”
  • The confident “Candyman” calls to “Roll those laughing bones.” (He also “talks the jive.” The “Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics” comments, “The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘jive’ as ‘talk or conversation; spec. talk that is misleading, untrue, empty, or pretentious.” A couple of Purim characters talk their own jive.)
  • And as we go “Truckin'” in our life journeys, we are reminded and encouraged to take the gambles: “Sometime the cards ain’t worth a dime if you don’t lay ’em down.”

Look at how well Queen Esther considered the hand she was dealt, and how well she played her King.

So much in the Purim story seems to be happenstance at just the right moment in just the right way. What a long, strange tale it is. Ha-Shem, the Big Boss Entity, barely shows up — in 10 chapters there’s exactly one veiled reference. Even Gd is in disguise. That’s why the ancient Wise Ones of Blessed Memory told us that on Purim we can dress up and mask our faces – to acknowledge and celebrate that which is hidden. Some create conceptual costumes, some dress as heroes, and some of us dress as villains past and present. Mocking our enemy, those who scare us – that’s a very Purim thing to do. Taking a scary symbol like a skeleton and turning it into something fun, turning it on its head, while reminding us that it is a real thing – that’s a Deadhead thing to do.

The Wise Ones also mandated Purim as our time to indulge in intoxicants. (As long as this does not endanger you, Gd forbid.) It’s right there in the Talmud, plain as black and white, “get prepared, you get to have a party tonight.” Drink (wine) “Ad de-lo yada” – until one does not know, until you can’t tell the difference between blessing the hero Mordechai and cursing the villain. Drink all night and rock all night – it’s been going on for centuries. They may not have told you that part in Hebrew school. If you went to Purim as a kid, you probably did not notice adults in a corner having a le-chayyim. Before cannabis legalization, Deadhead Jews went around the back of the synagogue for a discreet alternative le-chayyim. (So we hear.) One could write a master’s thesis about lyricists Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow’s references to alcohol and other recreational drugs, their pleasures and their pitfalls. Drinking parties are the bookend scenes for Megillat Esther. This is certainly Deadhead territory.

Drinking, gambling, strange times, hard times, and redemption are themes of all Americana music – the blues, ragtime, country and western, rock, hip-hop, even swing – and they are surely themes in folk music worldwide. In those songs, though, we usually hear the lyrics at a p’shat (simple, literal) level, and it is good that way. But to the Deadhead’s ear, even “driving that train high on cocaine” has meaning beyond a locomotive engineer who has taken a few sniffs.

So we mask ourselves (for fun), we drink, and we read the story every year, and we look forward to it because we “know it turn out right.” Purim reminds us that the wheel is turning, we can’t go back and we can’t sit still, so we just keep truckin’ on, we keep on playin’ in the band of human experience.

Chag Purin samei’ach!

About the Author
Scott A. Tepper (Him etc., a/k/a Reb Zisha) has been a ba’al tefilla and teacher in Boston's Jewish community and beyond for decades. Scott has a BA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He created and teaches the webinar “Grateful Jews – Exploring Jewish Connections to the World of the Grateful Dead” and is a member of the Grateful Dead Studies Association. His first Grateful Dead concert was May 7, 1977 at the original Boston Garden. Scott's primary career has been in applications and software training.
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