Web Exclusives: Raising Kate
a PAW web exclusive column by Kate
Swearengen '04 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
March 26, 2003:
on the Street
fan plays for Princeton students
Terrace was on tap last Thursday, as it is every Thursday and
Saturday night and, increasingly, Wednesdays and Fridays as well.
What made last Thursday special was the Guinness. Most nights, when
you go out to the Street to drink a beer, what you get is watered-down
Old Milwaukee "Beast," in Princeton parlance. But
even without the pricey Irish hops, last Thursday would have been
remarkable: Shmuel Skaist, an Orthodox rabbi and regular fixture
on the East Village music scene, played his acoustic guitar for
a crowd of about 30 students.
Rabbi Skaist is originally from New York, but spends much of his
time in Israel, where he teaches philosophy at Bar Ilhan University.
Since 1995, Skaist has been a fan of the band Phish, a wildly popular
jam quartet now immortalized in a Ben & Jerry's flavor, "Phish
Food." Phish concerts are generally pretty psychedelic affairs,
the province of Frisbee-playing, reefer-toking kids. Skaist, who
has a long beard and sidelocks, probably stands out at these concerts
less than you might expect. He is laid-back and disarming, part
rock star, part Raffi in tzitzis. He goes to Phish concerts because
he likes the music, but he also sees them as a unique opportunity
to reach out to other Jews. Skaist estimates that something like
30 percent of the fans at a given Phish concert are Jewish, most
of them nonobservant.
Skaist played in Terrace's front room, a large, wood-paneled space
furnished with scuffed red leather couches and a piano. The only
light came from the white candles that were clustered around the
room. The event was sponsored by the Center for Jewish Life, and
so Terrace couldn't open the taproom until the show was over, a
policy that galled Skaist: "Is it because I'm a rabbi? Because
I drink beer, you know."
The turnout for the event was mainly the CJL crowd a few
yarmulkes, and lots of Hadassah T-shirts although other people
wandered in as the night went on. Because the fliers for the event
had billed Rabbi Skaist as the "Phish Rabbi," many came
to the show expecting to hear covers of Phish songs. Most of them
stayed even after realizing that Skaist was playing his own stuff.
Skaist played a graphite guitar "With graphite, you're
not supposed to have to tune it so much. I guess I'm doing something
wrong." with a daisy pattern on the strap.
Skaist introduced many of his songs with anecdotes. One of the
songs, the "Ode to Patrick and Tom," is about two college
students who dropped out of school and traveled the world looking
for the secret to life. In every city that they visited, Patrick
and Tom went to a bar, and at every bar they were directed to a
local holy person or wise man to consult. Patrick and Tom stayed
for a week or two in each place until they came to Jerusalem, where
their existential inquiries were met with shrugs. Having had no
luck in the bars, Patrick and Tom sought counsel from a rabbi on
the street. "I won't tell you what he said to them." Skaist
said. "It was in Hebrew, but the basic idea was for them to
get out of his way." Patrick and Tom decided to stay in Jerusalem,
where they opened a meat-and-milk restaurant. "It was probably
the most kosher restaurant in the city, even though Patrick and
Tom weren't Jewish." Skaist said. "But it went under a
few years ago, so they had to go back to Michigan."
By far, the biggest hit of the evening was "The Protocols
of the Elders of Zion Are True," a tongue-in-cheek, rollicking
tune whose chorus was: "Yes, the Protocols of the Elders of
Zion are true. I let the cat right out of the bag." Skaist
prefaced the song with a discussion of a recent Egyptian television
series based on the Protocols, and joked that if there was an international
Jewish conspiracy, he wanted to be part of it.
After the show, Skaist went down to the taproom, where he chatted
about philosophy, Madonna, rock music, and Jewish mysticism. The
guy on tap duty asked him if he wanted Guinness or the standard
club suds. The rabbi drank a Guinness.
You can reach Kate at email@example.com