Grateful Dead in Hebrew Brings 1960’s Counterculture Band to Promised Land

“I will sing to Hashem as long as I live; all my life I will chant hymns to my God.” Psalms 104:33 (The Israel Bible™)

Fans and enthusiasts of the Grateful Dead have something new to sing about: several of the iconic band’s songs have been translated into Hebrew. The unique project was spearheaded by Israeli rapper Chen Rotem, founder, frontman and lyricist of The Promised Land, a Hebrew-language cover band of the Grateful Dead.

The Grateful Dead were a hit band for over forty years, playing more than 2,350 concerts over their long career. They promoted a sense of community among their fans, many of whom followed their tours for months or years on end. The group often provided free food, lodging, music, and health care to fans along the way.

“The Grateful Dead remain exceedingly popular today,” noted Roni Segal, academic adviser for The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, a company which offers language courses online, to Breaking Israel News. “Though to some, their name might imply heavy metal, the group is actually known for their unique blend of poetic lyrics and rhythms leading to this new Hebrew music experiment which just might be a great way to learn Hebrew.”

Grateful Dead’s “Brown Eyed Woman” in Hebrew by The Promised Land

Followers of the Grateful Dead are nicknamed “Deadheads”. The original groupies consisted of a disproportionate amount of Jews and people disillusioned with the establishment who sought a community based on peace, love and rock and roll.

The Promised Land is an apropos name for a Grateful Dead cover band: its performers are from Israel, and one of the Grateful Dead’s cover songs, originally performed by Chuck Berry, is called “Promised Land”. The song includes the lyrics, “I woke up high over Albuquerque, On a jet to the promised land…Tell the folks back home, this is the promised land calling.”

Ironically, given the loving spirit of the group and groupies, The Promised Land’s album, which came out in April of 2015, was recorded in a soundproof bomb shelter in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. Additionally, Rotem’s music partner and close friend Benny Blutstein was murdered in the gruesome 2002 bombing of the Hebrew University cafeteria.

Instead of lambasting all Palestinians, Rotem chose to connect to the spirit of The Grateful Dead and inspire Israeli and Palestinian children to use music as a channel for finding common ground, even performing with Arab rapper Tamer Naffar.

The translation project, started in 2013, took approximately 18 months to complete and was achieved with the help of folk singer Ami Yares, a New Jersey native and longtime Israeli resident. The team stayed true to the folksy tunes of the Grateful Dead but took liberty with the Hebrew lyrics, often connecting them closer to God’s Promised Land. For example, “Lazy River” now references the Jordan river.

Rotem’s girlfriend is credited with introducing the musician to the music of the Grateful Dead, which was never a particularly popular band in Israel. “Until then, I knew them superficially, a few songs here and there, like most Israelis,” he said. “But gradually, I started to dig into their big musical world, and found something magical. It began to roll on from there…It took on a karma of its own.”

As many of the Grateful Dead’s songs contain abstract lyrics, Rotem chose songs based more in standard ballad or rock formats and which could be made relevant for Hebrew listeners. He notes that much of the original music is “very Americana, but it’s also universal – focusing on life, people, redemption and vice. There’s a lot of room for interpretation,” he said.

Rotem established two two rules for the project: to keep the phonetics of the lyrics intact as much as possible and to “Israelize” the lyrics. “It didn’t seem right for me to sing about these American places in Hebrew,” said Rotem. “I think that’s part of the charm of the whole project.”

Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” in Hebrew by The Promised Land

Therefore, though the song “Friend of the Devil” easily translates as “Chever Shel HaSatan” (חבר של השטן), the performer did not want to sing about Reno, Wichita and Tennessee, as the Grateful Dead does. Instead, he uses the Israeli cities of Ramle and Carmel. He alters Tennessee in the country-style ballad “Tennessee Jed” to “Kfar Hanasi” in the Hebrew version. Kfar HaNasi is a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee with rolling green hills, similar to Tennessee. The name also happens to rhyme with ‘Tennessee.’

The project is authorized by the Grateful Dead’s publishing company and was completed just in time to celebrate its 50th anniversary. As the band has often been described as having never played the same song the same way twice, “Israelizing” their music with Hebrew seems like something they would have appreciated and responses to the album have been enthusiastic.

“From our experience, we know that there is international interest in studying both Biblical and modern Hebrew,” Segal continued. “As music touches on an emotional level, we hope that this album will be a catalyst for people to formally study this holy language.”

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