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Phish and Judaism: Going to Synagogue at Madison Square Garden

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Editor's note: This is the second in a series of posts profiling artists and chronicling unexpected Jewish mystical experience. Read the first post on transcendent song.

For Phish fans, New Year's Eve is a High Holy Day. And in Phish lore, Madison Square Garden is a sacred temple -- perhaps the most sacred.

So what happens if you're diehard for both Phish and Judaism and one never-miss-it concert falls on the Sabbath? Do you skip synagogue? God forbid.

Yerachmiel Altizio, 35, is a devout Jew who has seen Phish perform more than 200 times, but because a live concert on the Sabbath presents a number of Jewish legal issues (traveling, carrying and listening to live music are prohibited) he was not able to attend the New Year's Eve extravaganza in Manhattan.

Perhaps now I should give full disclosure: I've seen Phish 12 times and though my standards for observance aren't exactly the strictest, I would also call myself a devout Jew.

It's in this context that I raise the question: Is the mind-altering environment of a Phish concert an appropriate place for a devoted Jewish seeker? And further: Is it, even on the holy Sabbath, perhaps the ideal environment?

The Duality of Phish

"The thing with Phish, why they're so unbelievable, is because everything about them has two sides. It's like a duality," Altizio says. "For a righteous person, it's a completely uplifting spiritual positive experience. ... For someone that's done something bad, it can be the worst trip."

Altizio has spent a lot of time thinking about what goes on inside a venue while Phish plays. After hundreds of shows and thousands of hours, he thinks he has an inkling of an answer: it has something to do with intentional ecstatic dance, pervasive communal joy and the unknown destination of Phish's improvisation. But most certainly, the fact that the rhythm section of the band is made up of two Jewish guys is key.

Every time I meet Altizio, like any good follower of the Chabad Hasidic tradition based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he wears black slacks, a white button down shirt and a black jacket. His beard is wispy enough to imply that he hasn't been in the Chabad world for too long (he traded in his secular life for Orthodoxy in 2001), but it is long enough to prove that he's fully committed. I sit in his apartment in Queens, asking him questions about mysticism and jam music and not laughing when he responds in biblical terms. The bookshelves in his room are brimming with Hebrew-inscribed leather-bound spines that conceal the more secular, even heretical, titles leftover from his youth. On his walls, for every picture of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe (the beloved rabbi of Chabad Jews) there is another piece of Phish paraphernalia. But it's his go-to guitar -- a hollow-body Ibanez electric -- that reveals just how central his experience with Phish remains to his identity. The guitar, which resembles the custom-made axes used by Trey Anastasio, Phish's guitar player, stands front-and-center on the cover of Altizio's first album, When Will The Master Come?. Walk the streets of Crown Heights and you can often find that same guitar adorning posters for upcoming shows of his band, Merkavah. On the album and on the posters, the guitar is topped by Chabad's iconic black fedora.

Here is a Jew who cannot escape Phish. Here is a Phishhead who cannot escape being Jewish.

A Brief Account of the Divine Chariot

When he was 19 years old, Altizio dropped out of college in Massachusetts and moved to California. He had dreadlocks. He'd been to countless Phish concerts. He was an uninvolved, unconcerned secular Jew. He was a wandering hippy. At some point he visited the Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was there, in an area called the Valley of the Lost Souls, Altizio says he had a vision. He had a friend with him. His friend saw the same thing. In the vision, a ring of seven clouds formed in the sky. The clouds were like cookie-cutter Stars of David. The clouds formed the Merkavah, the divine chariot. Now, far from the Valley of Lost Souls, after countless more Phish shows, after returning to college and studying jazz guitar, locks shorn and tzitzit adorned, Altizio cites this vision as the turning point, as the beginning really.

But despite the vision's ringing clarity, Altizio won't quite make the claim that what he saw was "the chariot." It would be a high claim. The Merkavah is one of the earliest recorded instances of Jewish mystical experience. It's the throne of God that Ezekiel saw. The first Jewish mystics, precursors to the Kabbalists, who were precursors to the Hasidim, were known as "descenders of the divine chariot." That is, through their mystical practice, these devotees aimed to draw the divine down into the world. Despite his apprehension, I think all the pieces are there.

Peering into the Void

For all the time I've spent in the world of this band and the world of this faith, speaking with Altizio gives me the feeling I've barely glimpsed the depths of Phish's music -- the Jewish depths.

In 2009, I attended a four-show run leading up to New Year's Eve in Miami, Fla. That is, I gladly went to see Phish perform four nights in a row, and when it was all over I wished for a fifth concert. I yearned to get back to that very real, very powerful feeling of spiritual elevation, the likes of which I've only felt through the music of this band and for fleeting moments while living in Jerusalem and New York City.

In Jewish thought, the Torah can be read or studied on four different levels. There is the simple meaning of a text (peshat), the allegorical understanding (remez), the deeper metaphorical interpretation (derash) and, finally, the secrets hidden deep beneath it all (sod). We can understand the story's obvious teaching, we can find its allusions and learn from its implied comparisons, we can parse each sentence, squeezing out every drop of meaning, and still there will be a depth to that story that we will never fully perceive.

This progression from peshat to sod, from definite meaning to endless mystery, is played out in full in the Phish experience. Phish's music is often derided as a self-indulgent, "mindless" drug soundtrack. Their lyrics have been called meaningless, nonsensical dribble. Phish fans are routinely lampooned as clueless, hedonistic hippies. But for those who "know," the music and the scene are so much more.

Descenders of the Divine Chariot

In Jewish tradition, a person does not study Torah alone, lest he or she come to an incorrect conclusion or find false meaning in a passage. The traditional solution is that you should have a study partner so that, in moving from peshat to sod, from simple understanding to underlying secret, you have a check against interpreting incorrectly.

Conversely, in Jewish law, any action that requires speaking must be done alone because when two people talk simultaneously, their messages cannot be heard. This has practical application when studying Torah. One person reads a piece of text and then his or her partner responds with a question or conclusion. But in music, the opposite is true. Two people can, and should, sing together. In music, Jews strive for harmony. And harmony cannot exist if you are alone.

To create the musical Merkavah -- that is, to become a vehicle of divine action through playing music -- you need two Jews. Not only does Phish have two Jewish band members, Altizio explains, but the Jews, Mike Gordon on bass and Jon Fishman on drums, create the foundation of Phish's music. They hold it down. They are the vehicle, the "chariot," that allows the rest of the band and everyone in attendance to fly.

There's a statistic out there, unverified as it may be, that roughly one-third of the audience at every Phish concert is Jewish. Gordon and Fishman, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not, have helped create a uniquely Jewish mystical experience to which an unusual number of Jews flock.

While Gordon and Fishman help build the chariot, a lot goes on at a Phish concert to keep the vehicle moving. The musicians on stage become vessels for energy to pass from the audience and out into the universe, and visa versa. The experience sounds like a traditional communal Jewish prayer service -- wordless repeated melodies, ecstatic dancing and the sweat of focused intention.

Singing with devotion is the greatest preparation for prayer. And intentional dance, like the circular Hasidic steps on a Friday night or the out-of-body contortions of a Phish fan, is also an appropriate preparation and necessary component of any "authentic" Jewish prayer experience.

Hasids and Phishheads dance the same dance. They sing the same song. They peer into the same void. They fill the void with the same joy and love.

While he wasn't physically at Madison Square Garden for New Year's Eve, he was definitely there in spirit. To sway and pray anywhere on a Friday night is to add one more blessing to the same cosmic stream.

"It has a endless positive effect on the world," Altizio says. "Like a spiral that never ends, it just keeps going and going and going."

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