When you look at the photographs of the original Woodstock festival — the real one; the one exactly 50 years ago; the one that started on August 15, 1969; the one that actually was about 70 miles away from the town of Woodstock, in the Catskills (yes, those Catskills) — you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people there.
There seem to have been almost half a million people there, although rough estimates of crowd size are as accurate as we can get. There wasn’t enough food, it rained, people were coated with mud, the festival wasn’t known for its drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll for nothing (although even then, people saw as much and did as much as they wanted to. Everyone’s mileage varied).
Woodstock was a glorious carnival, with top musicians, one after the other, playing through the day and then through the night into the next day (although when people who hadn’t been at the festival listened to the music recorded there they weren’t nearly as enthralled by it as the people who had been there were. The sound system, they say, was iffy).
And there were so many people!
Sometimes it’s sort of like the Mayflower. Had everyone who reports having been there actually shown up at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, it wouldn’t have been just New York State’s third biggest city. It would have been the planet Earth’s biggest. Ever. It wouldn’t have been physically possible to fit those many people there.
When you look at those huge crowd scenes, with thousands of people beaming ecstatically, it’s easy to forget that every single one of those figures was an actual person, with a real story. Each one of them fought the traffic to get there, and then stayed there; figured out how to eat or go without eating, figured out how to wash themselves or go without washing. There are up to half a million stories about being at Woodstock.
Here, we present four of those stories, told by four people who live in northern New Jersey or Rockland County and were at Woodstock. Each one is specific, each one is slightly different — and they have something in common. They are all glorious memories.
Jack Zakim of Mahwah — back then living in Manhattan, but a Paterson boy born and bred — was 23 when he heard about Woodstock, earlier that summer. He’d just finished his first year of law school, and he wasn’t at all sure that he wanted to be a lawyer. He’d been a serious swimmer — he’d been an All-American at the University of Cincinnati, he was the youngest swimmer at the Maccabiah Games in 1961, and had won a gold medal there, and he returned to Israel to swim for the team again in the 1965 Games.
And also, he said, “it was 1969. The world was changing radically then.” Law school seemed stodgy. Men wore jackets and ties to class, and almost everyone in class was a man. And of what use were lawyers in 1969 anyway?
So when Jack heard about Woodstock, he was tempted. “So I bought tickets, for $8, and I went up there with two other guys. We were on two motorcycles — one of the motorcycles was mine, and one of the guys was on the back of it.” It was Thursday, August 14. They zoomed north on the New York State Thruway, but then they started to go slower and slower. “You couldn’t get past Route 17 with a car, because of the traffic — but we were on motorcycles,” he said. “We could bypass it.” So they zoomed around stuck cars until they couldn’t do that any more either. Then “we went off the road and across the fields, and left the bikes behind the stage.”
By then, “we lost the fella on the back of my motorcycle,” Jack said. “He was sitting there with a lot of stuff — it wasn’t very comfortable — and there was a car in back of us, so he got off and went to that car.
“Some young ladies were in that car, and they welcomed him as a passenger. On the second day, I ran into him again, but he was happier to be with the young ladies than with us.” They’re still friends today, Jack added.
And then, he continued, “I sort of lost the other guy too.” They’re still friends now anyway. “People were wandering around, and he had some difficulty coping with the rain, so he just got on his bike and went home. And I was alone.
“I ran into some people I knew, but I just hugged them and moved on.
“And then I did connect with someone, a young lady, who was Orthodox, from Woodmere,” one of Long Island’s fabled Five Towns, which were not quite as solidly Jewish then as they are now, although they were plenty Jewish then. “She came up with some girlfriends who had camping gear, so I had a home. I stayed with her, and when it was over she left on the motorcycle with me. We dated for a couple of months afterward.”
There are photos of Jack bathing in the lake; he’s shaving, and the parts of him that show in the picture, from midchest up, are naked. The young woman is in some of the photos too; she’s in the lake behind him, and she’s dressed. “You could tell she was Orthodox because she always was dressed,” Jack said.
“It was really about peace and really everyone there was a love child,” he said. “Everyone was welcoming.”
Although he had bought tickets, many people who were there had not, and many people who had bought them were stuck on the roads and couldn’t get in. The ticket part didn’t matter, he said, because “by the time Friday morning came, they told us nobody needed tickets, and the fences came down. The crowds took them down.
“But it was not a riot,” Jack stressed. The fences were not taken down in anger, but in response to a request from the organizers, as broadcast over the sound system.
“There was not enough food to go around,” he said. “There were a lot of helicopters. One was dropping flowers, and then the next one was dropping sandwiches. It was almost like a war zone.” The food, when there was food, was free. “We didn’t know where it came from,” he said. It was sort of like manna, raining down from the sky.
Water also rained down from the sky. Lots of it. Much of the festival was a mud-covered mess.
That brings us to the photo of Jack Zakim shaving — an image that director Ang Lee sort-of-reproduced in his 2009 film “Taking Woodstock.” But the actor standing in the lake shaving, just as Jack Zakim did, was pudgy. Jack was not. That has not failed to irritate Jack mildly. He looked so good in the photo!
The next logical question is why did he shave at all? So many of the men at Woodstock sported facial hair; some of them had fancy, well-grown-in beards and unlikely moustaches, and others had a few days of scruff. But Jack shaved.
“It’s because I was so filthy, so covered with mud, and when I found a place to swim and wash off and I borrowed the shaving gear, it was a way to feel clean.” Because, maybe paradoxically, he felt “both liberated being at Woodstock, and dirty.
“Because when you are caked with mud, and then the sun comes out and bakes it on, you feel really really dirty.”
When people talk about Woodstock, they talk about the music — but rarely before they talk about the joy of simply being there. Jack eventually got to the music. “We spent most of the time in the field, listening,” he said. “The performers were the best of the day — Janis Joplin, Crosby Stills & Nash. It was so awesome that I decided that I was definitely not going back to law school. I wanted to perpetuate the mood.”
He became a rock promoter. “About two months after Woodstock, I put on my first show. It was at the gym at Rutgers, and it was Country Joe and the Fish and Mountain.” He spent a few years doing that, before he, yes, did go back to law school. He still practices law today, from his Hackensack offices.
The concert was transformative for him, Jack said.
“It was feel-good, and it wasn’t just the drug. It also was the drugs, but not just the drugs. It was the good vibe of everybody there.
“There was no hostility, no racial tensions between the blacks and the browns and the whites and the Jews. It was like Sly and the Family Stone. It was contagious. It was one big party.
“And it was life-changing. That is what I and 399,999 other people experienced. People were there from all over the country, and from other parts of the world. You were there for three days, and you had to get along with your brother. There was no violence and no tension.
“That was the miracle of Woodstock.”
He is not surprised that Woodstock cannot be replicated; not in the huge multiday concerts that followed soon after, and not in the various anniversary attempts, including the one that was canceled, just weeks before it was to open.
“It was the perfect storm,” he said.
Part of it was the way it was the gathering of the hippie tribes, together at last. “There were no politics at Woodstock,” Jack said. “If you had long hair back then,” not in Woodstock but out in the real world, “that meant that you were a hippie. And if you saw the police anywhere, you went the other way, because you probably were carrying pot, and because they would harass you, because you were an outcast.
“There were plenty of police and national guard at Woodstock, but there they became part of the party. There was no tension between them. We were all there together.
“The music was great, and you kind of felt that you were at the center of the universe, and that anyone who wasn’t there was missing out on this new social phenomenon — love your brother.
“It was the magic of Woodstock.”
Going home, going back to the outside world, presented some logistical difficulties, he said. His new friend, Michelle from Woodmere, went back on the motorcycle with him. “She had stuff, she was sitting on the back, and I was driving it with one arm behind me, holding onto her, so she wouldn’t fall off,” he said.
His parents hadn’t really known where he had been. “I just told them that I had gone to a concert,” he said. “It was all over the media, so when I got home, I called them and said ‘I’m home.’” They’d been worried, but it literally was decades before cell phones, and the lines for the payphones were notoriously long. So he just hadn’t called. Parents didn’t helicopter over their 23-year-old sons very much then, so it all worked out.
The photograph of Jack shaving in the lake turned up the next week, in the then-new New York magazine. In those pre-viral times, it did the equivalent of going viral.
Jack later got married; he and his wife, Lydia, have two children, two grandchildren, and another on the way. He grew up as a member of Temple Emanu-el in Paterson, and for the last 27 years he and Lydia have been active at Temple Beth Rishon. They’ve both been board members there. He’s also been a federation trustee, and very active in what was once the YM-YWHA in Wayne.
He might have done some of those things had he not been at Woodstock, but he would have done them differently, and quite possibly with less joy. That, he repeated, is “the magic of Woodstock.”
Bill Graizel of Teaneck, who grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, also bought a ticket to Woodstock. “I probably was one of the handful of people who actually bought one,” he said.
He was 23 years old then.
He decided to go with his friend George, who had just come back from Vietnam. “He lived in Williamsburg — and it wasn’t even Jewish then,” he said. (That worked; neither is George.)
“We drove up there on Friday, and by the time we got to Monticello Race Track we couldn’t move at all, so we just left the car there,” he said. “People were just parking in the grass, head in. We didn’t think it would be a problem to walk in.”
“We also didn’t realize that we were 10 miles from the site. And we had one of those gallon jugs of cheap wine, and we carried it for the 10 miles.
“We got there just as the show was about to begin. Richie Havens was about to go on.”
That first night was mostly folk music, Bill said. “It was mellow. But when that ended, it was still raining. It had been raining all evening.
“Most people headed off to their cars to sleep, but we took our sleeping bags and moved up closer to the stage. We just slept there. It rained off and on, but we were in a fabulous position.”
They didn’t give it up.
“About five years ago, for the 45th anniversary, the New York Times had a picture taken from behind Joe Cocker, and George and I were in that picture. I didn’t find me at first, but I found him.
“We were there all day Saturday and Saturday night. Nobody there knew about the chaos it had caused until Sunday morning, when one of the promoters came on stage with the headlines from the Times.
“That’s when we heard that we’d closed the Thruway.”
He has blissful memories of the music. “It was a who’s who of musicians, and it didn’t matter that the sound system wasn’t perfect.
“For the life of me I can’t remember if I brought food or what I ate or lines for the bathroom. We were sharing everything — food, water, drugs — everything.
“One of the things I always will remember is how magnificent this was. It was about 3:30 in the morning. Sunday morning. Janis Joplin left the stage after her performance — it was her breakout performance — and somebody with a loudspeaker says that we will be back in 20 minutes with Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, and Jefferson Airplane.
“This was 3:30 in the morning! You are going to get this in 20 minutes! This was a show to travel miles for.
“It was all night long. Nobody slept. I think that maybe Sunday morning, it ended with Jefferson Airplane at about 8 or 9. Gracie Slick called it ‘morning maniac music.’
“We stayed in our place, right in front of the stage, until about 3 in the afternoon, and Joe Cocker performed. It was magnificent. And then just as he finished, the skies opened up one more time — it had been raining all weekend — and my friend and I looked at each other, and said ‘Enough,’ and we walked the 10 miles back to the car.
“We missed some great music — it was probably after sunup on Monday when Jimi Hendrix played his famous version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” — but it was enough.”
Bill and George had no problems getting home. Their car was not stuck in the mud, and because they left before most people did, the roads were clear.
Like Jack, Bill pointed out the obvious — there were no cell phones and so few pay phones that they were virtually impossible to use. “Your family had no idea where you were,” he said. “I was living with my mother at that time, and I walked in and she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the way I looked.
“I was caked in mud.”
She made him get undressed and into the shower before she would talk to him, and she threw the filthy clothing he’d shown up in away. “We left the sleeping bags up there; for all I know they’re buried in the ground there still,” Bill said. And he wisely left the shoes he’d worn outside.
Fifty years later, he’s still glad that he was at Woodstock, and he appreciates the status it gives him as a participant in something that undeniably was history.
“One of the amazing things — one of our takeaways — is that we were flower children. Love and peace and happiness and all that. So can you imagine 400,000 people, 500,000 people, all together for a weekend and no one getting killed?
“Everybody just got along. There were no arguments. No fights. Nothing like that at all.”
The one problem is that there’s only one way down from a peak.
“I almost think that the ’60s ended with Woodstock,” Bill said; by the ’60s, he meant 1964 to 1975, he added. The cultural 1960s. “It went downhill after Woodstock.
“I think that any attempt to rebirth it or to duplicate it is doomed. At least in the eyes of anybody who was there.
“It is like getting hit by lighting,” Bill said. It doesn’t happen twice.
Bill Graizel also has gone on to have a good life — he’s married to Lynne and he has two children, Amanda and Dana. He’s a real estate developer in New York, and he’s Jewishly connected; among other things, he’s a past president of his synagogue, Temple Emeth in Teaneck.
Rima Kopelman Rosenstein of Oradell grew up in Jericho, pretty much in the center of Long Island’s Nassau County (and very much not one of the Five Towns).
She was 19 in the summer of 1969, and about to start her sophomore year of college, when she and her friends Judi and Janet decided to go to Woodstock, and so did Janet’s brother. “We talked our parents into it, but they weren’t that concerned,” Rima said. They were veteran concert-goers anyway, she said; they’d already seen the Beatles.
Janet and her brother went separately, and they never made it to Woodstock, but Rima and Judi — that’s Judith Shimberg Montminy — got into Rima’s mother’s big old maroon station wagon and headed north. At first it was fine, but “after a while, we started getting into a lot of traffic on the Thruway. And then there was a van that had equipment and needed to get through, and people were getting out of the way for it. So we decided to get right behind the van.” Driving in its slipstream, Rima and Judi easily arrived at the Yasgurs’ farm. “No one took our tickets,” Rima said. “It was free by then.”
They had no place to stay. Now, Rima said, she has no idea where they thought then that they would stay. Probably she didn’t think much about it; maybe she thought they’d sleep in the car. But they met some guys who had a tent; they had food, so they were welcome. They slept in those strangers’ tent for two nights.
They did not feel threatened in any way, although they were young women in a place with many young men and not many conventional constraints. “We stayed with a couple of guys we didn’t really know,” Rima said. “They offered us drugs, which we did not take. We didn’t feel vulnerable because of that,” and in fact they were fine.
“One of my strongest memories is that we had to call home,” Rima said. “There were lines of people at the payphones.”
She remembers the music — “I remember Richie Havens and Jefferson Airplane” — but with far less detail than she remembers other, less crowded concerts.
“We were plainclothes hippies,” she said. What does that mean? It’s that she and Judi were sort of hippies, but sort of not, and the part of them that were not hippies were observers. They watched. And they left early.
“We started getting a little — well, panicked is too strong a word, but that’s why we left early.” Their discomfort started outweighing their pleasure. “It was great to have been there,” Rima said. “When we were there, we didn’t realize that it was historic. We still pat ourselves on the back because we were in Woodstock.”
It was not transformative for her, though, Rima said. Partly, that’s because she had gone to so many concerts. “We were children of the ’60s,” she said; still, she and Judi would have had to have been not hippies in plainclothes but all-out, all-in hippies for it to have worked as thoroughly for them as it did for others.
Rima Kopelman Rosenstein is a recently retired rheumatologist; she and her husband, a retired hand surgeon, have three daughters and grandchildren.
They’re also active in the Jewish community; they’re involved members of the JCC of Paramus.
Steve Gold of New City has a different set of memories.
Not only did he go to Woodstock, but he also grew up nearby, as the son of Holocaust survivors who owned a chicken farm and a bungalow colony called Gold and Rados in South Fallsburg, about 15 miles south of Bethel in Sullivan County.
He did find Woodstock transformative.
“I was 15 years old then,” Steve said. Because I knew all the back roads, I was able to get in and out.
“They started building it about two or three weeks prior, and I started going as soon as they started building it. I would go with friends or relatives.
“When it got closer to the show, there started being more and more people showing up to help, or just to hang out. But because we knew the back roads we were able to get in and out without many issues. So I got to see a lot.
“I was there for many of the historical performances. So were my brother, and so were my cousins, who went with their hair dryers. You remember those big old hair dryers? I’m not sure where they thought they’d be able to plug them in.
“And my brother went with a radio. No body knew what to expect. And then it happened.
“It was the greatest thing that I ever witnessed. It was the greatest thing that a whole generation ever witnessed. And it changed the generation.”
Steve didn’t stay overnight at Woodstock. He didn’t have to. And not only did his parents know about it, “they thought the whole thing was great.
“When there was a shortage of food, my parents were among the bungalow colony owners who got together to make announcements on the PA system.” The public address system in the bungalows, that is.
“So there was my mother, in her Yiddish accent, saying, ‘Ve need everybody to make sandviches because of the starving hippies.’”
The PA system, word of mouth, and other forms of communications that tightly-knit communities develop allowed the Jewish bungalow colony owners and their guests and friends to know what was going on. “Everybody was talking about what was going on at Woodstock,” Steve said. “We really had up-to-date bulletins about how much food we needed to make. And so you had all these bungalow colonies making food and sending it over.
“And then there were hotels like the Concord, which cooked up I think 100,000 boiled eggs and sent them over. I think they got there by helicopter.”
Steve’s parents, Ruthie Domfort Gold and Manny Gold, and his aunt and uncle, Gussie Domfort Rados and Morris Rados, had gone to the Lower East Side after they’d escaped post-Holocaust Europe. “They had some relatives here, including an uncle who was a realtor in Sullivan County,” Steve said. “He told them that after what they’d been through, they should get out of the city, live in the fresh air. He said there was an egg farm for sale, and they should buy it.
“He took them up there, and he walked them around the egg farm six times. They thought it was the biggest place they’d ever seen. And they couldn’t believe how many chickens it had!
“So they bought it, and to make ends meet they started renting out the cottages.
“It was great. I had the greatest childhood.
“And then, for two and a half months every year, I got to be hip, because I met all these hip Brooklyn and Bronx kids who were coming to my parents’ bungalow colony. There were a lot of artists and designers and heads of advertising agencies.
“I was the first in high school to wear a Nehru jacket, and a huckapoo.” Excuse me. A what? It’s a shirt, it turns out. A very brightly patterned polyester shirt. “I don’t think anyone would be caught dead in one now, but I probably had 30 of them. The whole thing was very cool.”
Was he a hippie? Not really, Steve said. “I wasn’t. It wasn’t really good for nice Jewish boys to be hippies.”
During the concert, Steve was able to go backstage. “Don’t forget that in those days, there were no backstage passes,” he said. “There was very little security.” And a family friend, the father of a friend of his, was the electrician who put it together. “My friend’s father was in the movie, yelling at people to get off the towers because he was afraid they’d be electrocuted.”
Steve is an entrepreneur; most of his work is in the meat business — “I’ve developed a new type of healthier burger, chicken and beef, called a skinnyburger,” he said — but he also has a new project, partly for charity, that grew out of Woodstock.
A few years ago, Steve remembered that the father of a girl he had dated 50 years ago bought some wood to make a paddleball court. The father asked Steve to help unload it; he said that it had been the stage at Woodstock, which had ended about three weeks earlier. “I forgot about it, and then about two years ago I thought about it, and I remembered Robin’s father.” He and a friend remembered where the court had been; they found the wood, bought it, had it authenticated both scientifically and legally, and “then we decided to share this magical piece of wood that was the focal point of Woodstock.” It has logos on it, and evokes memories.
He sells it online, from a website. “We took some of the sawdust and put it into miniature glass bottles, and call it Stardust in honor of the Joni Mitchell song,” he said. Proceeds go to “five different charities that bring the spirit of Woodstock to the forefront. Those charities are the Vietnam war memorial in Washington; the Jed Foundation, which works to stop bullying and teen suicide; Feed the Children; WhyHunger, and Ribbons for Jamie, named to memorialize Jamie Guttenberg, one of the victims of the school shooter at Parkland.
Steve, who is married to Helene and is the father of Griffin and Austin, is actively Jewish. “I am co-president of the the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland,” he said. “Before that, I was chair of the federation’s JCRC. I was on the board of the Holocaust museum, and of my synagogue board — that’s the New City Jewish Center. I co-chaired the opening ceremony for the Maccabi Games.
“I do it out of the love of being Jewish, because I promised my mother and father I would make sure that people never forget what happened to them.”
So, as someone who had both grown up in Sullivan County and had gone to Woodstock, was it transformative? Yes, he said, both for him and to some extent for the generation of Holocaust survivors who lived there. Hope and love and nonviolence and music — what could be better? Even though it rained!