50 Years Later: Woodstock’s Powerful Lesson of Love and Kindness
My sister and I joined half a million other baby boomers at Yasgur's farm. Little did I know how it would unexpectedly change my life.
It took all my babysitting money but it was worth it. Who could have resisted the small ad I found tucked inside Ramparts magazine one lazy summer afternoon in 1969?
After all, it promised “3 Days of Peace & Music” with the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, The Who and – my 17-year-old heart be still – my beloved Arlo Guthrie.
The next day I sent away for tickets for my sister Tobi and myself. Our parents? Repeated assurances that we would stay at a youth hostel near Bethel, NY seem to pacify them and on Thursday morning we drove off in a friend’s rickety old Peugeot, with not so much as a glance back at our Wheaton, MD brick-fronted colonial.
This week marks a half century since that day when my sister and I joined half a million other baby boomers at a Catskills dairy farm for what would go down in history as Woodstock.
It was a crazy year. The Beatles released Yellow Submarine, the first humans walked on the moon, antiwar demonstrations filled the streets, President Dwight D. Eisenhower died, Charles Manson and friends went on a killing spree and Golda Meir was sworn in as Israel’s first female prime minister.
Against this background, it was Woodstock’s bucolic setting and dazzling menu that drew us, promising nothing less than the most extraordinary music of our generation (absentee Bob Dylan notwithstanding).
But August 15-18, 1969 was not only a magical weekend packed with performances by much of America’s rock ‘n roll royalty. When an unexpected half million kids turned out (for days Bethel was the second most populous spot in New York State), this August weekend quickly became emblematic of an entire generation, known forever after as Woodstock Nation.
From the vantage of 50 years, these mud-soaked days and nights both reflected and celebrated our generation’s ideals. But it’s only now that I can see them for what they represented to me: a singular devotion to chesed, to loving kindness.
As teenagers in an America bifurcated by the Vietnam War, our generation strove for a life of “sharing and caring” – Woodstock was where I learned you can sleep 10 in a two-man pup tent (if everyone slabs sideways) and feed the same number from a jar of peanut butter using a solitary spoon.
It took a non-Jewish family to teach me Judaism's value of chesed that weekend.
The organizers and plenty of the attendees and performers were Jewish (Fun Jewish fact: Sha Na Na lead singer Alan Cooper was destined to become provost and professor of Jewish studies at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.) So was Max Yasgur who rented out his Bethel dairy farm for the event.
But it took a non-Jewish family to teach me Judaism's value of chesed that weekend.
Walking through town the second morning of the festival in search of the Greyhound bus to take us to our cousin’s wedding in Pennsylvania, my sister and I were not the only visiting hippies on the street. There were plenty of us coming and going. But we were far from popular with the local populace.
“Who gave you kids the right to ruin our town?!” they yelled from behind drawn drapes, the interiors of cars and the local hardware shop. “Go back where you came from!” The folks who did venture out glared at us as if we were two-headed aliens whose spaceship had landed in their town square.
As suburban high schoolers, my sister and I were not accustomed to anything like this level of rancor. Although we considered ourselves to be highly sophisticated and mature (doesn’t every teenager?), walking past them I knew that my sister was as frightened as I was. Fresh from the crowded peanut-butter-and-tent-sharing love fest on Max’s farm, we felt suddenly vulnerable and totally alone.
That’s when we saw it. An oasis of love in a desert of hate.
Among the modest ranch homes on the street, there was what appeared to be a mirage: A picnic table with a pyramid of peanut butter sandwiches, each corner boasting a pitcher of lemonade and paper cups. A middle-aged couple gestured us to come and partake (the food at the festival had run out by Thursday night and we were all pretty hungry). They also offered their bathroom (a dream come true after the overflowing port-o-potties at the site) and, in an era of costly long-distance calls, invited us to call our parents from the phone in their kitchen (there were kids lined up for both).
A great miracle happened there: This oasis of kindness actually “hate-proofed” my sister and me. Later, when the bus driver harangued us during the long trip to New York City (“Who gave you kids the right to screw up this town?”), we were no longer frightened.
Fifty years later, more than Joan Baez or Richie Havens, more than the packed pup tent and the peanut butter, certainly more than the curses of the other Bethel townsfolk, it’s that couple’s blessings that remain, forever reminding me of the transformative power of kindness.
And it was that kindness that inspired me to embark on another journey, to a life committed Torah and Jewish values, to moving at age 60 to another Beth El, this time in the land of Israel. Now, as I share in our people’s destiny here, I’m blessed to be able to put into practice the lasting legacy I was given by one middle-aged couple that summer morning in 1969.