The Jewish connection

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the historic Woodstock Music Festival, which attracted perhaps as many as a half-million, mostly young, concertgoers. The peaceful behavior of festival-goers gave, and still gives, Woodstock the aura of being the tangible affirmation of the “peace and love” ethos of the ’60s hippie “counterculture.” The “good vibes” were preserved for posterity by the best concert film of the ’60s.

As I recall from Hebrew school, the Torah likes the number 40 – 40 years in the desert and so on. So, I guess it is appropriate, on this anniversary, to explore Woodstock’s many Jewish connections.

Let’s put on a show

“The Semitic race seemed to be the only people who have the combination of financial acumen and artistic sense.”

The response of Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks Sr., in 1919, to the question of why Jews created and ran almost all the Hollywood movie studios. (Fairbanks’ father, whom he hardly knew, was Jewish.)

This quote, I know, will bother many Jews. There is the use of the now vaguely offensive term “Semitic race.” Plus, Fairbanks is stating what Jews shy away from acknowledging – “we” do have a talent for show business and the arts, sometimes to the point of unplanned “domination.” Still, I think Fairbanks was right in his analysis, however awkwardly stated.

Financial acumen came from centuries of oppression, when Jews had to create a living based on their wits. They had to learn to take a calculated gamble that non-Jews, secure in their place in society, probably wouldn’t take. Show business has always been a high-risk field that the more secure usually avoid.

The Jewish “artistic sense” has other sources. First, there’s the Jewish regard and respect for the clever, the funny, and the scholarly. Plus there is the Jewish sensibility, stemming from religious sources, that monetary success alone is not the measure of a person – that it is far better when business success is crowned with community accolades and some patina of intellectual achievement.

The Jewish presence in American music paralleled the Hollywood film industry experience. Virtually every form of music has had a huge Jewish contingent from the early 20th century on – musicians, songwriters, record company owners, concert promoters, and so forth.

Woodstock was certainly not the first big music festival. Jewish impresario George Wein, now 83, founded the Newport Jazz Festival 55 years ago. In 1959, he founded the Newport Folk Festival, which was the main incubator for the folk music boom of the early 1960s – a boom that influenced almost all the performers at Woodstock. Wein did this for love of the music, not for money.

Another major Woodstock antecedent was the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. It was conceived as a “class” event to highlight the explosion of rock, folk, blues, and soul music that was much more than teenage “bubblegum.” It was put on as charity event, with the performers forgoing a fee. In return, the event’s impresario, Jewish record executive and

music producer Lou Adler, now 74, made sure the musicians had the best in everything, from sound systems to lodging. Many acts first became famous (or much more famous) because of their Monterey appearance and, two years later, were Woodstock headliners – including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish.

Let’s try to put on Woodstock

A mini-explosion of rock festivals followed Monterey, including a three-day fest in Miami in December 1968 that drew 80,000 people. One of the promoters of that concert was Michael Lang, now 65, a Jewish guy from Brooklyn.

Max Yasgur on a mowing machine. Courtesy Sam Yasgur

In early 1969, Lang became the manager of a rock group and relocated to Woodstock, N.Y., a pretty little town a two-hour drive almost due north from New York City. Woodstock had long been an artists’ colony and in the mid-’60s, some famous rock musicians, including (the Jewish) Bob Dylan, had settled in or near Woodstock.

Seeking a record contract for his group, Lang wangled his way into the office of Capitol Records exec Artie Kornfeld.

As Kornfeld told me (and writes on his Website and in his forthcoming book “The Piped Piper of Woodstock”), he was taken with Lang’s energy and the fact that he seemed a conduit to the exploding hippie scene and so-called underground acts. During the course of a couple of months, they exchanged ideas about promotion and hit on the idea of throwing a big music festival.

Who’s Artie Kornfeld? He’s another Brooklyn/Queens Jew, born (1942) into a lower-middle-class family, who isn’t all that religious in conventional terms but wears his Jewishness on his sleeve. In talking to another reporter for a Jewish paper, he introduced himself as “Avraham ben Yisroel Kornfeld. I’m a Kohain born on the stroke of the day of Rosh HaShanah.”

Artie is multi-talented guy: He’s a musician; a songwriter with tons of ’60s hits to his credit (like “Dead Men’s Curve”); a producer and discoverer of major acts over four decades – and, at age 21, he was named Capitol Records first vice president for rock.

The lawyer for Lang’s rock group put Kornfeld and Lang in touch with two Jewish guys, Joel Rosenman, now 67, and John Roberts (1945-2001). Roberts had a multi-milllion-dollar trust as an heir to the Block Drug Co. fortune. The company, headquartered in Jersey City, was started by a Russian Jewish immigrant. Rosenman finished Yale Law in 1966, and around the same time he and Roberts became close buddies. They decided to advertise their interest in business propositions.

<tRosenman says that he and Roberts had the idea for a rock festival and Kornfeld and Lang initially approached them only to finance a recording studio in Woodstock. Lang and Kornfeld say they took the festival idea to the “R and R” boys.

In any event, the four guys formed Woodstock Ventures in March of 1969. For a short time, Kornfeld was a silent partner, since Capitol Records wouldn’t let him work for another entity. But he was so high on the festival that he resigned from Capitol and plunged into “Woodstock.”

Lang and Kornfeld, early on, decided that the festival would be more than a concert – it would be arty and educational. (How Jewish of them!) It would include crafts, celebrate the whole youth culture, and have a slightly vague anti-Vietnam war subtext. The festival poster, designed by Jewish artist Arnold Skolnik, read: “The Woodstock Music and Art Fair; An Aquarian Exposition in White Lake, NY; 3 Days of Peace and Music.” (It listed musicians.) It featured a now-famous drawing of a dove perched on the neck of a guitar.

The four guys picked the name Woodstock for its arty cachet and the town’s association with Dylan. However, they knew Woodstock was too small to host the festival. They found a site in the nearby town of Walkill. However, on July 15, 1969, Walkill’s politicians bowed to public pressure against thousands of “hippies” descending on their town and banned the festival.

Enter Max Yasgur

The Woodstock festival would find a new venue – the dairy farm of Jewish farmer Max Yasgur (1919-1973). It was near Bethel (White Lake), in the western part of New York’s Sullivan County. The eastern part of the county, including the towns of Monticello and Liberty, was once known as the heart of the Borscht Belt.

The Borscht Belt refers to the many hotels, bungalows, and summer camps that existed in the area and catered to Jewish customers, mostly from New York City. Some may think that a Jewish dairy farmer is an oddity, but, in fact, the Sullivan County Jewish farmer gave birth to the Borscht Belt.

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image Jorma Kaukonen performing at Woodstock.

Before the hippies, some Jews began their own “back to the land” movement in the early 20th century. In Sullivan County, a Jewish farming population developed as Jews, one by one, decided to settle there and farm, drawn by the beauty of the Catskill Mountains and a train line that took their milk to New York City. By 1910, somewhere between 500 to 1,500 Jewish farmers were in the county, constituting 30 percent of all American Jewish farmers.

A number of these farmers, to help make ends meet, started to take in boarders. This included the families who ended up founding the famous Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s, and Tamarack Lodge resorts.

A whole Jewish world – an ongoing Jewish festival of sorts – emerged in the Borscht Belt. New York City Jews – mostly immigrants and their children, who came of age in the 1920s through the mid-’60s – vacationed each summer in huge numbers at the Jewish-run Catskill lodging facilities that welcomed Jews (unlike many other American hotels). In time, entertainment was provided, and scores of famous Jewish entertainers got their start there.

The Borscht Belt reached its zenith in the 1950s, as post-war prosperity encouraged the creation of luxury resorts. It was a mecca for the parents of the generation that came of age in the 1960s – the Woodstock, baby-boomer generation.

By 1969, the summer of the first moon landing, the Borscht Belt already was starting to decline. It was done in by a combination of jet travel, air conditioning, and Jewish assimilation into the larger American society.

The hit 1988 movie “Dirty Dancing,” set in the Catskills in the early ’60s, showed the acute divide between the hip, rock ‘n’ roll music culture that attracted some young hotel guests and the staid entertainment the hotel management provided their parents. At the end of the film, the Jewish hotel owner remarks that he sees the end of his sort of lodging.

Jorma Kaukonen, the lead guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane, which played Woodstock, told me that his group played Grossinger’s about a year before Woodstock. He said it was his sense that the hotel was desperately trying to do “something for the kids” and, in his words, to “appeal to the ‘Dirty Dancing'” young crowd.

Artie Kornfeld

By 1968, the Airplane had several records that topped the rock charts, so their booking was not that surprising. Kaukonen, the son of a non-Jewish Finnish father and a Russian Jewish mother, was raised in a secular household but was culturally Jewish; he enjoyed the resort’s Jewish food. (In recent years, Kaukonen has become a committed Jew.)

Jorma added that he thought about his maternal grandmother, who had died, when he played Grossinger’s. He thought to himself that his bubbe would have enjoyed the hotel.

When Grossinger’s booked the Jefferson Airplane, it was a case of too little, too late, in terms of widening their appeal. Young Jews, like their non-Jewish counterparts, were more drawn to rock fests than old-fashioned resort hotels. The creative, hustling Jewish impresarios were channeling their talents into producing events like the Woodstock festival.

Now, how Max Yasgur’s farm became the festival site is the subject of widely differing stories. Everybody agrees that Elliot Tiber, whose parents owned a very bad, small motel not far from Bethel, did approach Kornfeld and others and told them he had a permit to run an arts festival on the motel property in August. Everyone agrees that Tiber’s property was unsuitable for the festival. Tiber says he then suggested the farm of his “friend,” Max Yasgur. (Tiber wrote a memoir, “Taking Woodstock,” about being a closeted gay Jewish guy who helped create Woodstock. A film of the same name, based on the memoir and directed by Ang Lee of “Brokeback Mountain” fame, opens Aug. 28.)

Artie Kornfeld told me that Tiber never told him about Yasgur. He found out about Yasgur, he said, through his own personal contacts. He then sent Michael Lang out to check out the farm. It proved suitable and Lang, Kornfeld says, made the deal.

Max Yasgur’s son, Sam Yasgur, has also written a new memoir, “Max S. Yasgur: the Woodstock Festival’s Famous Farmer.” Sam, who was 27 in 1969 and is now the head civil attorney for Sullivan County, told me he asked his mother, Miriam, still sharp at 89, about Tiber. She said that Max never even knew Tiber. It was her recollection that a real estate agent, looking for a suitable property for Michael Lang, put her husband and Lang in touch. So, while Tiber’s memories will be glorified and ratified in a major motion picture, his role was almost certainly limited to getting the guys interested in a Sullivan County venue and putting up a few of the Woodstock musicians at his motel.

Yasgur was no country yokel. He ran one of the biggest dairies in the county and had studied real estate law at New York University. He was also no radical; he was a registered Republican who supported the war in Vietnam. But he was a fierce opponent of intolerance and bias.

Sam Yasgur told me that most of the Jewish dairy farmers were located in eastern Sullivan County. Western Sullivan County was mostly non-Jewish and there was, historically, a lot of anti-Semitism in that part of the county. When Max moved his dairy operation to a new farm in the western part of the county in the ’50s, he dealt with the cool reception of his neighbors by “being a better farmer than them.”

In the summer of ’69, Yasgur did need money; a very rainy summer had ruined the hay meant to feed his cattle the next year. When Michael Lang showed up, they quickly made a deal to rent his farm for $75,000.

Soon after, it looked like the festival would be barred by a last-minute zoning maneuver. Yasgur angrily confronted some members of the town zoning board and told them that Americans in uniform fought and died to give us all freedom – and that freedom extended to those they viewed as draft-dodging, long-haired, anti-war hippies. Yasgur added that he didn’t agree with hippies’ views on the government, drug use, or “free love.” Still, they had a right to be in the town. Then, Max ended with what Sam Yasgur calls his knock-out punch, “Facing the [board] directly with something that had long rankled him about them, Max said: ‘What are you planning to do next? Are you going to try to throw me out of town because I am a Jew?'”

Max Yasgur’s cousin, Abigail Yasgur, former librarian of the largest Jewish library in Los Angeles, has just written an illustrated children’s book called “Max Says Yes.” It is a charming account of the festival (no sex or drugs in the book), and the title is accurate: Max said “yes” and Woodstock happened. He not only said “yes,” he got those who said “no” to back down by shaming them in the style of a biblical prophet.

The festival

Lang was the Woodstock field general, getting the site ready with a small army of workers. Kornfeld, meanwhile, raised money up to the last minute, via mail order ticket sales and the sale of the film rights to Warner Brothers. But in effect, the four Jewish guys had done their jobs too well; they booked such a great lineup of music acts, and had promoted the festival so well, that far too many people showed up on the first day (at the gates or clogging the access roads). If 80,000 had shown up, they would have had a chance at creating a controlled, artistically satisfactory festival that made a modest profit.

But even before the festival gates opened, much more than 80,000 people were approaching the site. By the end of the first day, upward of a half-million people were at the site or on the roads attempting to reach the festival. A humanitarian and financial disaster loomed.

The four promoters then made critical decisions that evidenced Jewish respect for life and art at its best. But it left them without anything to show financially – at least for years.

First, early on the first day, they decided to take the flimsy fences down and turn the festival into a free concert rather than risk chaos. By doing this, they established a “good vibe” that had the huge crowd working with them as a collective entity, helping one another despite a shortage of food at the festival site – and rain that turned Yasgur’s farm into a sea of mud.

Rosenman and Roberts reached deep in their pockets to pay for food and clean-up costs. The crowd stayed happy because the music kept on playing. The music played because Rosenman paid off a handful of performers who demanded their money up front. Meanwhile, Kornfeld cajoled most of the musical acts into agreeing to wait for their full fee.

The four guys sent out a plea for more food, which was answered by most of the people of Bethel and by the members of the Monticello Jewish community center, who made and sent thousands of sandwiches.

Woodstock’s relative proximity to New York City meant the event got huge media attention as the outlines of the main story emerged: a huge festival marked by great music and no crime, save for illegal drug use.

Barry Melton, then. Courtesy Barry Melton

There was, however, near-violence when Jewish radical Abbie Hoffman, high on drugs, interrupted the music of the English band The Who to advocate for a radical musician then in a Michigan jail. A member of The Who, perhaps not knowing who Hoffman was, quickly pushed him off the stage.

Jorma Kaukonen told me that he and the rest of the Airplane drove to Woodstock via back roads to play their set and drove out the same way after their set was done. He then went to New York City to appear on Dick Cavett’s talk show with some other Woodstock musicians. The festival was such a media sensation that Cavett bumped other guests to do a special Woodstock show while the festival was still ongoing.

It was when he got back to New York City, Kaukonen told me, and saw all the media accounts about the festival, that he realized that Woodstock was “something really special.”


Jack Casady, the bass player in the Jefferson Airplane, once said, “Woodstock was an eclectic gathering that tried to offer some hope for the future of mankind. It maybe wasn’t going to change the world, but it was going to change our world. You didn’t know if it was going to happen again or if it was a one-time thing…. People embraced the music as one of the ways to share the human condition. You were awed by the enormity of it.”

But Jewish musician Barry Melton, “the Fish” of the group Country Joe and the Fish, has another perspective. He told me that he sees Woodstock as an end of an era. It was peaceful, but it occurred when the optimism of the counterculture was already fading because of the Chicago convention riots and the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Also, the logistics of the festival were a nightmare and, henceforth, large-scale rock concerts would mostly be held in big stadiums and be, in effect, much more controlled and corporate.

Not long after the festival, Rosenman and Roberts bought out Kornfeld and Lang for only $32,000. In the decades that followed, the “R and R” boys would promote other events and, perhaps, make some money from the rights they retained to Woodstock-associated products. Lang and Kornfeld would work together for a couple of years, but had a falling out. “I love Michael,” he told me, “but I don’t like him.”

In recent years, Kornfeld has earned the title of “Father of Woodstock” for spearheading the successful effort to save the Yasgur farm and turn it into a site for public music concerts called Bethel Woods. Like many of his generation, Kornfeld developed a severe cocaine addiction, which he overcame in 1982. He recalls speaking a Hebrew prayer at the moment he chose sobriety for good. Kornfeld still feels possessed by the Woodstock spirit, which he said dovetails with the traditional Jewish ethical ideal of repairing the world. In October, he is putting a for-charity concert in San Francisco, featuring many musicians who played Woodstock.

Yasgur’s farm was ruined by the crush of the festival-goers and he was even sued by some of his neighbors for their losses. But he gained worldwide fame when the Woodstock film came out. It showed him speaking from the stage, sincerely welcoming all the young people and praising their peaceful ways. Yasgur moved to Florida in 1971. He refused to cash in by selling the rights to his name to corporate advertisers. Also in 1971, Yasgur and his wife visited Israel. According to one oft-repeated anecdote (which neither his son nor wife could confirm nor deny), Max met former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in Israel. When Ben-Gurion was told Yasgur was from Bethel, N.Y., he reportedly said, “Oh, wasn’t that were Woodstock was held?”

If anything, the Woodstock rock fest made the Borscht Belt hotels seem more old fashioned and unhip than ever and helped spur their demise.

Corporate advertisers, impressed by the huge Woodstock crowds, channeled the lion’s share of their money into the youth market and rock-associated events. This had the effect of ending the “underground” status of rock, thus killing much of the Woodstock spirit, while the loss of advertiser/corporate support for projects starring Borscht Belt veteran entertainers turned most of these performers into “dinosaurs” almost overnight. They were relegated to playing for a much less lucrative older market.

Today, the Borscht Belt is almost a lost world, with most of the resorts shuttered and a severe decline in the number of dairy farms, Jewish-owned or not.

Meanwhile, the children, as it were, of the Borscht Belt generation – the so-called Woodstock Nation (a term coined by Abbie Hoffman) – have grown gray and their dream of a loving, peaceful society has mostly faded, too.

But one thing remains constant: Jews still know how to put on a show.


I wish to thank the following persons for helping with this story.

My friend, Scott Benarde, the author “Stars of David,” of a great collection of interviews with Jewish rock stars about their Jewish identity.www.scottbenarde.com.

Also, Jorma Kaukonen, Barry Melton, Artie Kornfeld, and Victor Kahn. Infomation about all these guys, and links to their websites, can be found in the article above and in the accompanying website article sidebar on Jewish musicians at Woodstock.

Also author Abigail Yasgur, See her book’s website: www.maxsaidyes.com.

Also author Sam Yasgur, the son of Max Yasgur.

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