Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Look back on those days when my life was a haze

This is a continuation of my goal to write all the posts that I said I would. (Hilchot Pluralism Part VI will be here ASAP, I promise!)

I already blogged about Shabbat at IT, and said:
Then there was Shabbat at Coventry. This time around, we weren't stupid, and left on Thursday and arrived on Friday morning (after a similarly awful traffic jam), well before Shabbat. We did kabbalat shabbat in the rain, and had a sumptuous tailgate Shabbat dinner on the hood of the car. Others weren't so lucky (or didn't plan ahead), but this story (involving the disciples of Rav Shmuel) deserves its own post.

So here's the full story.

After over two decades together, Phish decided to call it quits, and convened a final two-day festival in August 2004. The festival was in Coventry, minutes from the Quebec border, in the serene Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, the area where Trey Anastasio wrote some of Phish's earliest classics while living in a cabin there in the '80s. For a few days, Coventry was the most populous city in the history of Vermont.

IT, the previous summer's festival, in Limestone, Maine (minutes from the New Brunswick border), had been a logistical disaster on many levels. The site was 57 miles past the end of I-95, that's 57 miles on rural two-lane roads that were never meant to accommodate 70,000 people. And they somehow had to get 70,000 people into the venue in a short window of time, which might have been more feasible if it weren't for the RAIN which had soaked the area just before the festival and rendered some of the parking/camping areas unusable, forcing the organizers to scramble for new space. They pulled it off, but it wasn't pretty, and we sat through a 12-hour traffic jam on the way in, and spent the next few days wading through MUD. So much mud.

So they tried to get some of these things right for Coventry. This time, the site was much closer to major population centers (really, you have no idea how big Maine is), and was only 6 miles off of I-91, so most of the driving, even close to the site, was on interstates. The actual shows were on Saturday and Sunday nights. For IT, they had opened up the venue on Friday morning to allow plenty of time for people to get in. Even that wasn't enough time, so this time around, they opened the doors on Thursday at noon. But there was one factor that they couldn't control: the RAIN was even worse this time. There were murmurs about the worst flood that this area had seen in n years, yadda yadda.

I drove up with EAR and Crammed. Determined to avoid last year's madness, we went up early enough to avoid the worst of it. We drove up on Thursday, so we would get there well before Shabbat. Since we made a detour to the Ben & Jerry's factory (amid sheets of rain), we weren't on I-91 with everyone else, and headed toward the Northeast Kingdom on minor roads that we mostly had to ourselves. Until the last few miles, which took all night. But then it was Friday morning and we were there.

We had an unpleasant run-in with the authorities on the way in. Part of the bottleneck was caused by searches of every car, looking for illegal substances, stowaways (without tickets), and anything that looked like it was for sale (since it was important that no one buy anything other than from a licensed vendor, so that Great Northeast Productions could take its huge cut). We had two boxes of Pri Eitz Hadar CDs in the trunk of the car -- one opened and one unopened. We had been selling them at Institute, and had completely forgotten that they were still in the car. We were told that we couldn't bring the CDs in. We said (entirely truthfully) that we had no intention of selling the CDs inside the festival, and we just had them with us from something else. They said that we had a choice -- we could hand over the CDs, or we could turn around and leave them somewhere else. We asked if there was any place we could leave the CDs and pick them up afterwards, and they said no. So this wasn't much of a choice at all -- it wasn't like we could call up our buddy in Newport and ask if we could park the CDs at his house for a few days, and even if we could, we would have to wait in the 12-hour line again. After pondering the possibility of just going home, we decided to hand over the CDs, as I mentally prepared to explain to the Hadar gabbais what had happened, and to pay for all the CDs. I hoped that Hadar would have mercy and would just let me pay for them at cost rather than at the sticker price.

Once we got inside and got settled, we found someone with more authority than the people who had confiscated the CDs, and explained our plight. He was sympathetic to us, and retrieved the CDs from the area where they were storing all the contraband, and we lived happily ever after. But now we understood why it took so long to get in -- if there is this type of protracted negotiation with each car, and you multiply that by several thousand, it adds up quickly. And they weren't even going after the right people -- it was obvious that many people did get in with merchandise they were selling, and much more of it than 1.5 boxes, and much more appealing to the average Phish fan's tastes than not one but two versions of Ashrei.

But that's not what I came to tell you about. Came to talk about Shabbat.

Thanks to Shamir, I had scored Rav Shmuel's cell phone number. Rav Shmuel (not to be confused with Rav and Shmuel) is a Hasidic rabbi who teaches Torah by day and is "undercover as a singer-songwriter right here at the Sidewalk Cafe" by night. During the Phish years, he and his entourage used to follow Phish around, and make Shabbat happen on tour. I heard that he would be organizing some kind of Shabbat thing at Coventry, so I called him up on Friday afternoon to find out where the party was at. It immediately became clear that things had gone wrong and there was no party that night. Since this was the last Phish show ever, Rav Shmuel had cashed in all his connections and gotten VIP status, so he had been able to get into the grounds through the supersecret entrance with no hassle. But the RV carrying Rav Shmuel's disciples and all the food was not so lucky. They were still stuck in the endless traffic jam and were not going to make it inside in time for Shabbat. So there were no Friday night festivities, but he told us to meet at a certain location at 11 AM on Saturday, and they'd figure out what was happening.

So EAR, Crammed, and I made our own Shabbat dinner, with food from the on-site Vermont farmers' market, and we did kabbalat shabbat the best we could recall from memory (it started to rain again, and we didn't want to get our siddurim wet), had a Shabbat dinner that couldn't be beat, went to sleep (quite soundly, having spent the previous night in the car), and didn't get up until the next morning.

Coventry was abuzz on Saturday morning. Mike Gordon went on the Bunny and announced that due to the flooding, the festival site had reached its capacity, and they couldn't let any more cars in. He told everyone who was still in their car to turn around and go home, and their tickets would be refunded.

(Why Mike? Because he was the "good cop". Everyone knew that Trey Anastasio was the main force behind Phish's breakup, so the fans were pissed at Trey already. Some took this to extremes -- I saw signs that read "TREY = WILSON". Mike, on the other hand, was widely known to be opposed to the breakup, so he still had credibility with the fans, and got to be the bearer of bad news.)

Of course people weren't going to turn around after coming this far. (Sunk cost, shmunk cost.) Instead, they pulled their cars over into the shoulder of I-91, took out everything they could carry on their backs, and walked the rest of the way in, some of them walking 20 miles.

We went to the appointed meeting place at 11 AM and found some of Rav Shmuel's entourage. The RV had arrived early that morning, before they stopped letting vehicles in. It was in the RV area way back near the entrance to the site, so we started walking toward the outskirts.

Rav Shmuel's disciples don't drive on Shabbat, so how did they get the RV inside after Shabbat started? "We went through 4 or 5 non-Jewish drivers. We told them they could have all the fried chicken and marijuana they wanted." None of the vehicles were moving very fast, and they all had lots of passengers, so Rav Shmuel's disciples had recruited passengers from other cars to take shifts driving the RV, while they themselves walked alongside for the remaining miles, which, of course, wasn't any slower than driving.

We arrived at the RV, and there was a tarp on the ground next to it. People were bringing out food, and more food, and more food. There was cholent, and kugel, and of course fried chicken, and probably enough of it for 50 people, for 2 meals (since this was supposed to be Friday night's dinner too). There were about 25 of us there.

Rav Shmuel himself is a class act, but some of the people following him around (and following Phish around) seemed to be lost souls. They seemed relatively new to the whole Jewish thing, and this was the latest thing that they were experimenting with. Mostly boisterous men, with a few women who didn't talk. One of the men (we'll call him Ephraim) made kiddush on an overflowing cup of whiskey, followed by cheering from the crowd as he downed the whole thing. As we started eating, Ephraim shared a vort. "The word mayim has one yud, and the word lechayim has two yuds. When the goyim drink, they drink alone, one yud, like it's mayim. But when we drink, we drink together, two yuds, so it's more than just mayim, we're making a lechayim. Lechayim!"

Pause. We sat there uncomfortably.

Rav Shmuel said calmly "I'm not so into that." Ephraim turned around, confused. Rav Shmuel said "We should be thankful that we live in this country, and be proud to be Jewish, without putting down our neighbors." Ephraim got defensive, but not argumentative, since he wasn't going to question his rav. He said "I wasn't putting them down, I was just saying they have a drinking problem." Pause. Ephraim continued, "Of course, I have a drinking problem too."

Score one for Rav Shmuel.

Sava'nu vehotarnu. We were finished eating, and there were still mountains of food left over. Who would consume all of it? At this point, situated as we were near the entrance, we could see hundreds of people hiking in with tents on their backs -- that's right, the people who had parked on the side of I-91 were now arriving in bigger and bigger waves. One of Rav Shmuel's people yelled "FREE KOSHER FOOD!"

"Duuuude, I'm staaaarving!" The hikers came over and helped themselves to hot cholent. "You guys rock, man."

Now it was time for zemirot. Some people started "Baruch El Elyon", a Modzitz classic. But after a verse or two, the fresh-off-the-boat "BTs" realized they didn't know the words, and scrambled around looking for a bencher. Meanwhile, I (wearing my NFTY T-shirt with the letters of NFTY in the shape of the Phish logo) knew all the words, so I was able to keep it going (and I promise we didn't sing this song back in NFTY).

You can't make this stuff up, and sometimes I wonder whether any of it happened or whether it was just a strange dream brought on by too much Chunky Monkey back at the Ben & Jerry's factory.


  1. good for Rav Shmuel for objecting to that idiotic antigoyist 'vort'

  2. Rav Shmuels the man! keep up the jewish pride. never confrom.