A recent Saturday offered a cold, overcast sky and intermittent fits of rain to thousands of Hunter Mountain campers. A little before noon, while most of Camp Bisco’s revelers donned muddy sweatshirts and reported to the concert stage, a considerable contingent stayed behind at its campsite. Like John Goodman in "The Big Lebowski," this group doesn’t roll on Shabbos.
Where there is improvisational music, especially on the east coast, there are Jews. Venues all over New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Hoboken are crawling with people wearing yarmulkes and knee-length skirts, as well as other, less conspicuous Jews, who often feel compelled to talk to or compliment the more observant sect. Summer music festivals, especially, have become a haven for musically inclined Jews to interact, since the environment has a deep-rooted spiritual bent. Plus, with just a modicum of forethought and planning, it is easy to observe Shabbat and kosher.
Outside a tent at the Camp Bisco campground are, from left, Yisroel Jacobsen (Passaic), Joseph Leichman (Queens), Yehudah Charytan (Queens), Yehuda Katz (Far Rockaway), and Aryeh Moskowitz (Washington Heights). Photos by Yehudah Charytan
Camp Bisco is a music-and-camping festival organized and headlined by the Disco Biscuits, or "Bisco," a veteran group whose fan base, much like that of seminal groups like the Grateful Dead and Phish, is rabidly loyal and colorful. In recent years, summer festivals like Bonnaroo, Wakarusa, All-Good, and Camp Bisco have become signature events that cater to jam-band fans. They typically feature around-the-clock music, camping, arts and crafts, vegetarian food, and a super-smiley ambiance.
A Shabbos walk-through of the Camp Bisco campgrounds offered the full Jewish experience: the devout, the rebellious, the unaffiliated, the apathetic, the atheistic, and the confused. Past the food vendors and up the hill, beside her tent, stood one girl layered in sweatshirts, with her head buried in an Artscroll prayer book. Next to her was her spokesperson, offering curious passersby an explanation: "It’s Sabbath, she’s just praying," or, "We’d love to come to the show, but we can’t, because we’re not allowed to see concerts until sundown."
Next to them was another friend, making grilled cheese and getting antsy about missing the first few minutes of music for lunch. He said he was from the same community as the praying girl, but hadn’t been observant since the beginning of high school. He added, as he flipped his sandwich on the fire, that this festival was one of his favorites, since there were "a lot of cool Jews listening to great music."
The peaceful confluence of observant and non-observant Jews spawned a musical phenomenon: the "Jewish head scene," a fairly commonplace term at jam-band concerts and festivals. A "head" is a devoted music fan; for instance, someone who loves Bisco is a "Bisco-head." The abundance of Jewish Bisco-heads is startling, almost as much as their cohesiveness. The shared music experience transcends observance, politics, and faith. The collective festival conscience is steeped in a shared spirituality and the pilgrimage to a remote place, at a specific time, to experience something uplifting and natural.
The music festival, in other words, is the great equalizer. Many Jewish heads, observant or not, started going to festivals in high school. Every year, as they get older, some draw closer to the faith, and others draw farther away. Still, they travel together to festivals in the same cars, share the same tents, dance together at the same shows, keep their food in the same coolers, and slosh through the same mud.
The heads recognize that festivals are opportunities to bring Jews together. One particular ”-year-old, who grew up in a religious Manhattan community and has since become non-observant, offered to buy the $150 Camp Bisco ticket for 15 Jewish friends, since "this is a festival that every Jew deserves to experience." Talking a few minutes before setting out to one of the Friday night performances, he said, "This is such an amazing festival. Just look at how many heady Jews came out here."