By Avraham Rosenblum of the Diaspora Band
On January 4th, 1971, I disembarked from the EL AL Boeing 707 at Lod Airport, suitcase and guitar in hand, in need of a change of scene. What I didn’t expect was the total change of direction I would take from following my dreams as an up-and-coming teen-aged rocker on the Philadelphia (my home town) and New York music scenes. But I need to back-track a little, to mid-August, 1969.
I was driving up the New York Thruway in my little brown Austen-America, heading to Montreal to drop in on some friends. I was running away from two heartaches; breaking up with my high school sweetheart, and my band, Valentine, falling apart. It was a great band. Philadelphia loved us. My girlfriend didn’t ‘get’ me anymore and so we broke up. Missing her gave me some good songs, though.
Somewhere around Yonkers I picked up a hitch-hiker whom I almost immediately poured my heart out to because, well, he dressed like me, had long hair, and had the same goofy sense of humor. As we got ‘goofier’ he asked me if I might want to distract myself at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, starting the next day near Monticello, NY. I had heard about it but had not planned to go. “Hey, dynamite idea!” I said.
‘By the time we got to Woodstock’
It was still pretty early on that Thursday, the day before the concerts started, when I parked near the festival site, somewhere just below Happy Avenue, one of the roads leading to the sloping, expansive meadow of Max Yasgur’s Farm. Along the upper ridge were the campers, tents, artisans and vendors, where it felt like a medieval village populated mostly by jesters. At the bottom of the meadow stood the huge hand-built stage, and the speaker towers. You could hear a band jamming in a closed rehearsal area. My passenger soon drifted away never to be seen again, and as I waded into the growing sea of happy people who also dressed and talked a lot like me, I got an epiphany that this was going to be a life changing event. “Far out, man!”.. I thought.
I was elated to be part of this new social order. I belonged in it. I had worked hard to forget my origins as a First Generation Yiddish speaking Holocaust Survivors kid from Northeast Philadelphia. My music and this culture were my way out and into the melting pot of America. My band-mates and friends were mostly children or grandchildren of Italian, Irish, and Scottish immigrants. Few were Jews. We were all looking for the same thing. And, me being me, I interpreted my Woodstock experience as spiritual, in the sense that our generation was in search of peace, love, harmony, anti the Vietnam War, and I was very impressed by the well-known turban clad swami who gave the opening benediction. For those few days we all partied, heard some great musicians and bands, and sang, “Come on people now / smile on your brother!/ everybody get together / try to love one another right now!” Peace brother! The swirls of images of ‘Woodstock’ that remain in my mind are proof- to myself – that I was there. Years later I even caught a glimpse of me in an early scene of the movie. See – I really was there!
One thing led to another quickly; the crowd got larger (500,000!), the music more intense, the weather rainier, and my sense of direction- which normally was quite acute – limited to ‘up or down’ mode. On Saturday night, after some hours of searching, I found my car. Six very helpful hippies helped me roll it out of the mud. I clearly remember feeling grateful to ‘someone’ that my guitars and belongings were still there. I was wet, chilled, and hungry, and stupidly determined to continue northward to Quebec even though the hour was getting late. But a few miles up the road I realized that the snaking center line was not a good sign as my head began to hurt and I started to feel feverish. I turned around and ‘somehow’ found Monticello General Hospital where, after a cursory look by a staffer, I was very kindly shown to a chair in the waiting room, in which I fell asleep.
‘My Yiddish Kite’
I awoke as people began to enter the room at 9 AM. I noticed a number of them were “frum” (although in those days I had no clue about Chassidim vs Misnagdim or Sefardic vs Ashkenazic. But I knew my family was from Vilna and that that made me a Litvak). So there I was – my unwashed shoulder length hair, love beads, well-worn denims, and muddy shoes on display, when I caught the glance of one young ‘yeshiva bochur’ whom I instantly greeted:
“Shalom! Vos machts du?” (Peace! How are you?)
“Vos tust’DE doh?”, (What are YOU doing here?) he asked with surprise.
“Ich hob kekumen tzu Woodstock!” (I attended Woodstock!) I answered forthrightly, as if to impress him.
“Un vus host’du gezucht bei Woodstock?” (And what were you looking for at Woodstock?) he asked with some genuine interest.
Switching to English, I said something about finding G-d in the big experience of unity, and not being limited to a synagogue. Unfazed, but needing to fulfill his mission of visiting a sick friend, the yeshiva bochur apologized for not having the time to continue our conversation and wrote down a phone number and address on a piece of notepaper which he handed to me while recommending “If you’re really looking for G-d and spirituality check this out. Shalom. Zei Gezundt!” (Be well!)
I did continue looking for G-d for the next year – in a small Jewish-Buddhist-Christian cult and through the Timothy Leary – ‘Doors of Perception’ method, while writing and performing songs written in that vein. But by September of 1970, when my last American band, Freehand, was getting good reviews in New York at the most notable Village Gate, in Greenwich Village, I was a mess and felt lost. I quit the band and within a month I reluctantly went home to my family back in Northeast Philadelphia. They were actually quite glad to see me. But the family dog, Dolly, was not happy to meet my cat, Thumb, who disappeared soon after.
I had one last encounter with possible fame that December, when a show business contact personally introduced me to legendary songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“On Broadway” and more) who took an interest in me for their new record label.
‘A Greener in a Green Land’
Well, I actually took that trip to Israel in 1971 with my mother, Edith, Aleha Ha’Shalom, and my Aunt Helene, Aleha Ha’Shalom. The family thought it would be good for me to get away from ‘everything’ and I decided that taking a break to see some of the world couldn’t hurt before I resumed my career. I called Barry and Cynthia to postpone my test sessions in New York for few weeks, which they were OK with.
When we landed all I could think was how green and fresh everything looked. It was in fact a brand new country – only 23 years old! I was 20. Something began to stir. I was excited to be there. Why? I wasn’t observant. I hadn’t gone to synagogue in years. What could it mean? I did try to volunteer to go to Israel in 1967, during the Six Day War. I was only 16 so the consulate rejected me. That was it. I also went to my Godmother’s funeral around that time too. That was Jewish, but.. Yes, I was feeling all kinds of feelings, seeing things I didn’t expect to see, asking all kinds of questions, and hearing the sounds of bubbles frequently bursting.
One afternoon as I walked along Rehov Allenby near our hotel, I noticed another guy carrying a guitar case. He looked American, the case looked like it might be carrying a quality instrument, and so I flagged him down. I was right on both counts, and soon Sam from Chicago and Allen (my English name) were jamming our way across Israel on buses, at Hebrew University Campus, and one cloudy but enlightening afternoon in the back of an Old City Arab smoke-shop, where we got “hookahed up” and played some good ole boy country music for the un-country-like, loose garbed patrons – and they loved it! From there, Sam led me to my first encounter with The Wailing Wall (which of course I now only know as The Kotel HaMaaravi) and a rabbi who had me put on Tefillin for the first time since my Bar Mitzvah. The sounds of Hebrew prayer all around me woke something up, and as the rabbi attempted to coach me in reading the blessings, my mouth had already formed the words – that flowed sweetly out across my tongue: “Shema Yisrael / Ado-Shem Elokeinu /Ado-Shem Echad…”
Just like that. What a long, strange trip it had been.
End of Part 1.