The Jam Music Community’s Biggest Fans? Orthodox Jews

Aryeh Gelfand


Leaving the insular world of New York’s Orthodox Jewish community can come with many shocks and surprises. For some, these tremors can make leaving painful.  


Those going off the religious path, or “Derech”, find different ways to cope with the imminent loss of community and purpose leaving brings. Still others, unsatisfied with a life of insularity as they are, bring the spirit of Judaism with them as they journey forth and explore what this world has to offer. These two groups of seekers and adventurers have found a common resting place among the ever growing, vocal, and distinctive subculture known as the Jam music community.


This community has moved from the fringes to the mainstream as society has gradually relaxed its attitudes towards marijuana and other drugs, with commercial success following. For example, two prominent members of this subculture, Phish and the Dave Matthews Band, had the one and two top-grossing tours, respectively, among all summer tours in 2013, according to Billboard’s Hot Tours rankings.


Strangely enough, the cleaving of the formerly and currently Orthodox to the Jam community has become an established fact. This union has spawned such bizarre sights as Hasidic Jews dancing in the flowing reverie alongside the scantily clad women this music begets, all of this occurring on the expanses of land that surround NYC during the summer festival season.


Revelers spend each weekend of this season enjoying copious amounts of illegal drugs while immersed in the psychedelic atmosphere of these temporary adult wonderlands. Among the crowd will be groups of the formerly and currently orthodox enjoying this spectacle weekend after weekend, sometimes hidden, sometimes not.


What is the draw for these “rebels” to such pleasures? The answers the same time and time again: community, spirituality, and freedom.


The Orthodox community has a very strong community structure. It is that same structure that can make it so difficult to exist in. Imagine a society where everyone knows who you are and is judging you. It can feel like being on trial all the time. This, however harsh-sounding, creates community bonds that are hard to break.


The Jam music community has a communal feel that mimics those bonds. It is not unusual for fans to “miracle” a ticket; a phenomenon where a complete stranger hands you a ticket outside a show, allowing you entry into a concert that you couldn’t afford. “Miracling” is a concept that grew out of the Grateful Dead song “I Need a Miracle,” and is representative of the communal nature of these concerts and the subculture that has existed around them.



It is not unusual to have a complete stranger pass a burning joint from his clenched fingers to yours, and all that is expected in return is a high-five. There lies the secret to success for this community and the draw it exudes. A great example of this type of community is the Camping Trip.


“The Camping Trip was born out of a love of live music and a desire to be free of the mundane and ordinary,” according to the mission statement of the event.


The Camping Trip is a three-day music festival located in upstate New York to cater to said demographic. The festival, while not exclusively for Jews or even the religiously observant, offers strictly kosher food, and a cessation of music from sundown on Friday for a period of 24 hours in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. Observant Jews refrain from most activities, including making or listening to music during this time.


“There are walls up between people and boxes that we live in that work to separate us from each other. I feel that this is inappropriate.” said Ian Leifer, the organizer of the event.


“I am trying to break down these walls and Jam music is conducive to do that.”



The second draw is the search for spirituality. Growing up in an Orthodox home with an Orthodox education gives one a life direction that is clear-cut, with little necessary room for thought. It is merely a question of where to fit in within a clearly defined set of behaviors and goals. Leaving this behind, or becoming unsatisfied with these boundaries can unleash many pent-up questions. Many look for other means of satisfying them. The allure of Jam music is that it, when combined with psychedelic drugs as it often is, can result in experiences that are certainly beyond the mundane, even spiritual.


“I’m reminded of the human experience both spiritually and recreationally, for me it’s a searching to fill a greater void. We are striving for greater mindfulness,” said Andrew Rosen, an observant Jew and devoted fan of Jam music.


Jerry Garcia, the guitarist for the Grateful Dead and a man some consider the godfather of this entire genre of music, was looked on as a primordial, almost mythical figure by his devotees. It is not a mystery why. His playing has a slow magical flowing quality that can make a person want to dance manically, laugh, and cry all at once. This effect is one that all Jambands attempt to emulate.


The third is the freedom that is inherent in a life devoted to music, drugs and the extraordinary. The creativity in dress is one aspect that can prove defining for people who have spent their entire childhood being told to wear white and black. It is natural to seek out extremes. Colorful tie-dye clothes, feathers, and leather are the accepted norm here. These, along with the ever-present flat cap, are the signature mode of dress for these circles.


Even the simple lack of structure with regard to time that exists at these festivals can be a powerful draw. Morning and night meld together, becoming one. It is not unusual for people to have their first beer or bong hit upon awaking, whatever time that may be. This entire culture is based on the ideals of freedom and individual liberty. It can be an intoxicating brew for some, especially those coming from restrictive lifestyles.


The phenomenon of Orthodox Jews in the Jam scene, as strange as it is, is representative of the trends at work at all levels of society in the internet age. As the walls restricting access to information come crashing down, it has become harder and harder to restrict people’s beliefs and behavior.


It is in the hands of keepers of tradition to adapt and adapt correctly to these trends.


Author Bio:


Aryeh Gelfand is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine

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