Sunday, August 2, 2015

Woodstock: A Jewish Party

Woodstock. A watershed moment in American history. I wonder how many people realize that Woodstock was created by Jews. It was invented by Jews Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, and bankrolled by Jews John P. Roberts (denture adhesive heir) and Joel Rosenman. The event took place on the farm of Max Yasgur, also Jewish. Yasgur’s farm was in the heart of the Borscht Belt in the Catskills (about a dozen miles from Grossinger’s, the quintessential Jewish summer resort). This makes perfect sense to me. Who else but Jews would imagine, fund, host, and put on an event where people starve, are forced to crawl through the mud, trek long distances on foot to arrive where they have nowhere to sleep in a sheltered location, dance, sing, chant, transcend reality, fall in love, have a life-changing spiritual experience, change the course of history, and scare their moms half to death?

The 46th anniversary of Woodstock arrives in a couple of weeks. I have often pondered what it was about Woodstock that made it so significant. It was an epiphany to the counter-culture and progressives of my generation. The community that was created at Woodstock was bigger than the music festival itself. The power in the sheer numbers coexisting peacefully over the course of the festival as well as the preceding days when they flowed into the area was deeply moving. It was a city of gentle, generous, caring people. It demonstrated what that kind of community could be like. As Wavy Gravy said, “We must be in heaven.” It also illustrated how enormous the counterculture was. If we had felt isolated before, we felt less alone after Woodstock. Freedom was what it was all about when I was young, and so it was enormously fitting that Richie Havens opened the concert singing about freedom. I think the biggest message that came from Woodstock was that young people could change the world. Youth could change the existing social order and create a new culture. In the new culture, people made peace not war. In the new culture people were more important than profit. The American obsession with productivity was questioned because the new higher value was quality of life. In the new culture, conventions were no longer bulletproof. They were questioned and replaced if perceived to be wrong. Woodstock was a symbol for hope in the future and for belief in transformation on a personal, cultural, national, and global level. So it rained, oy. Always a little tsuris to remind us that life happens every which way and we need to appreciate the goodness and sweetness to help us through the mud and disaster. How much more Jewish can you get?

Max Yasgur was not a radical. He was a Republican who supported the Vietnam War. At the same time, he passionately opposed racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance or prejudice of any kind. He believed that people had the right to live freely in their personal beliefs and cultures, and that this was the cornerstone of our democratic America. He was opposed to discrimination against hippies, “others,” radicals, the counterculture, and he walked the talk. He ran one of the biggest dairy farms in upstate New York. Few Jews lived in Western Sullivan County, where Yasgur’s farm was located, and historically there was a lot of anti-Semitism in the area, even though it was part of the Borscht Belt (where many Jews went for a summer vacation, but did not live year-round). In his memoir about his experience of Woodstock, Eliot Tiber (born Eliyahu Teichberg), whose Jewish family owned the Monaco Hotel near the Woodstock site, relates that in the weeks leading up to the concert, townie vandals spray-painted swastikas and anti-Semitic racial epithets, taunts, and insults on the sides of buildings on the hotel property nightly. Every morning, Tiber’s father went out with a can of paint to blot out these horrifying words before his wife (who had fled the pogroms of Russia by walking across Europe) could see them. Tiber documented his involvement in Woodstock in his book Taking Woodstock, which Ang Lee made into a movie. The title refers to Tiber’s closing words of his book in which he explains that Woodstock changed his life and that he always takes Woodstock with him in his heart. He was responsible for calling Michael Lang to suggest that the concert be moved to Bethel when Wallkill barred them (and he provided the permit for the concert that was needed). Tiber, by-the-way, attended Yeshiva in Brooklyn as a child.

Interestingly, the big resorts in the Borscht Belt originated in a back-to-the-land movement staged by immigrant Jews in the early 1900s. Many immigrant Jewish families moved to the Borscht Belt to start family farms, and to make ends meet they took in boarders. One thing led to another and the big Jewish resorts were born. In a lovely synergy of history, many of those who attended Woodstock in the Borscht Belt would make their lives on back-to-the-land farms.

The locals held the Jews responsible for bringing the hordes of hippies to the area and they were unhappy about it on a grand scale. Well, yeah, the Jews did bring hordes of hippies to Woodstock. No one knows how to throw a party like Jews. Tiber says the locals actually told him they feared that the hippies would rob them and have sex with their cattle. But the cattle remained chaste and the townies were not robbed.

Those darned Jewish kids from Brooklyn (Lang, Tiber, and Kornfeld all grew up in Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn). Kornfeld, although not religious, was known to introduce himself on occasion as “Avraham ben Yisroel Kornfeld, a Kohain.” The Kohains were the high priests in ancient Israel before the destruction of the holy temples. So the descendent of a high priest from the holy temple in Jerusalem was instrumental in creating the Woodstock experience. Naturally.

In the end, the promoters of Woodstock lost a heap of money on the concert because of the enormous number of people who descended on the site and the need to ensure their safety. If the originally anticipated number had turned out (50,000), the promoters would have made a tidy profit; however, as more and more people flowed into the area, decisions had to be made and they were made on the side of humanitarian efforts, not profit. The fences came down (after 100,000 tickets had been sold). The concert was declared a free concert (with an estimated 500,000 people attending). Perhaps this decision by the promoters was the single most significant factor in making this iconic event what it became. The good energy they created by making it a free concert, and the positive spirit of the concert that resulted still stands as a symbol for the kind of inclusive community that can be built on love, peace, respect, and all those altruistic attributes of which humans are capable. The promoters covered the costs for bringing in food and other necessities, for cleaning up Yasgur’s farm afterward, and for paying many musicians up front (instead of later) to perform.

The role that music plays in effecting social and political change was never the same after Woodstock. Music has always had this role, and Woodstock sealed the deal. But it was more than that. Woodstock gave us faith in the future of humanity. If Woodstock could happen in the world then people might manage to change in good and positive ways and preserve the planet and not take advantage of others and learn about one another’s cultures and stop killing each other and all the rest. Kornfeld would surely agree with Tiber that he takes Woodstock with him through life in his heart. Kornfeld has said that Woodstock was a vehicle for engaging in the fundamental Jewish concept of repairing the world (tikkun olam). Certainly three days of peace and music and nothing but peace and music for half a million people could make a dent in that effort. Happy 46th birthday Woodstock. Even though I was too young to attend, I take Woodstock in my heart too.

There are millions of iconic photos of Woodstock I could choose from to accompany this post, 
but I chose instead a photo of Max Yasgur. What a remarkable human being, eh?

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