Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

March 26, 2003:

Rabbi on the Street
Phish 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 kswearen@princeton.edu