The lyrics are instantly recognizable: “I lit up from Reno/I was trailed by 20 hounds” … “I know you, rider/gonna miss me when I’m gone” … “I had to move/really had to move/that’s why if you please/I am on my bended knees.”
But what happens when the lyrics to some of the Grateful Dead’s most iconic songs — like “Friend of the Devil,” I Know You Rider” and “Bertha,” respectively — are translated into Hebrew?
American folk musician Ami Yares and Israeli rapper and hip hop MC Khen Rotem, better known as Sagol 59, decided to find out. The result, The Promised Land: The Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia Hebrew Project, was released in April.
They will perform most of the album during a concert at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel Dec. 17 at 6:30 p.m. The 16-song album sounds like a faithful reinterpretation of Grateful Dead classics with just one twist: they’re all in Hebrew.
According to Yares, the Grateful Dead enthusiast community in Israel is not a large one, but there is an appreciation for the music: As anyone who attended a Dead show knows, a disproportionate number of the band’s fans happen to be Jewish. A Cherry Hill native who lived in Israel for 9 years before moving back to America a year ago, Yares discovered his own Grateful Dead community while in Israel. But his affinity for the band began before that.
“I grew up with the Dead but really got into it during their last tour — and then Jerry Garcia died shortly thereafter” in 1995, he remembered. “Obviously, the music lived on.”
Rotem approached him about the project after they had met a few times in Israel where Yares was performing mostly folk and Americana songs. Yares was more than willing to sign on. At that point, Rotem had already been working on the translations of the lyrics, but had yet to perform them live.
Yares estimates they recorded about 50 percent of the songs in Yares’ home in Jaffa, calling the album “a labor of love.”
After learning Hebrew while living in Israel, Yares approached the project with gratitude, believing it gave him the chance to “get to see some of these songs near and dear in my heart come alive in another language.”
To retain the authenticity of the lyrics but also make it more relatable to Israeli listeners, some locations in songs were changed, such as Reno and Las Vegas.
Yares’ favorite translation comes during “Mission in the Rain,” in which the “magic” of San Francisco is changed to the magic in Nachlaot in Jerusalem. However, Yares added with a laugh that “Nachlaot certainly wasn’t the birthplace of hippies and magical stuff.”
The project came during a “fortuitous” time in the Dead’s history, while they were celebrating their 50th year, complete with the surviving members reuniting for a two-city “Fare Thee Well” tour.
They are a “dedicated” group of people — pun intended — Yares said of the band’s fans.
“It’s really part of a cultural tapestry [of] rock music history,” he said. The Grateful Dead “are a fundamental part of American pop history. It stands up to the test of time.”
Though he hasn’t seen them live — tickets were expensive and he is a musician after all, he said, laughing — Yares said he can enjoy the re-imagining of the music and being a part “in that active way” through the album.
It wouldn’t be a long shot if at some point Bob Weir or Mickey Hart start listening to Yares and Rotem’s project. After all, one of Garcia’s ex-wives learned about the project and commented on it online. Rotem had already written to the band to inform them about the album. That means they’re more or less “in there” with the Grateful Dead.
He and Rotem are traveling to different cities for an eight-show tour including a few workshops.
“We’re really hoping that this small, modest tour is accepted and we’ll be able to do it again in other parts of the States,” he said. “We’d like to share it with as many people as possible.”
For their BZBI stop, Yares said they will perform most of the album as well as a few unreleased tracks they have been working on, including “Ripple” and “Brown-Eyed Women,” which Yares called “staples” of the Dead repertoire.
Rabbis Abe Friedman and Yosef Goldman are excited to be able to bring the music of the Dead to BZBI.
“At BZBI, we really see ourselves as not just a house of worship but as a hub for Jewish culture and engagement,” Friedman said, “and that coupled with our commitment to the importance of Israel and the Israeli culture as part of our Jewish life, this was a natural fit.”
The combination of one of the greatest bands in music history and Hebrew translations might help listeners experience the music in a new way, Friedman explained.
He added that for the synagogue to bring in a “coming together of Hebrew language and American art seemed perfect to us.”
Though he doesn’t consider himself a Deadhead per se, Friedman is excited to see the audience’s reaction to the music.
“I think it’s beautiful to see the way that art builds bridges across cultures, and that a beautiful work of art like a Garcia/Hunter song will stand as beautiful art in other languages as well,” he said.
The fact that the songs are in Hebrew will bring something “familiar and unfamiliar” to the audience, but Yares is hoping listeners approach it with an open mind.
“I want them to just smile and enjoy it,” he said. “We’ll help them with translations.”
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