(Matthew Streib is traveling across the country on his bicycle exploring
religious sites that are inspiring and uniquely American. You can read more
about his travels at www.americanpilgrimage.com.)
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. – Sitting on his porch, the Rabbi Yisroel Gootblatt is strumming a guitar, playing an old Bob Dylan ditty. In a town known for artists, musicians, and other eccentric personalities, he blends in with the scenery. But he’s actually trying something quite different.
Gootblatt is a rabbi in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Orthodox Judaism who believes in the existence of the as yet unrevealed messiah on Earth. In order to speed the revelation process, Lubavitchers believe Jews must be united in their tradition.
“Woodstock is extreme in that regard. It’s a place where there’s an incredible percentage of the population of Jews who happen to be a lot less knowledgeable of their tradition, and even hostile to it,” Gootblatt says.
So he gets creative, creating a relaxed atmosphere where beer, music and conversation flow freely and loudly. “There’s actually a saying from the Talmud: ‘When the wine goes in, the secrets come out,’ ” he says. “When people are relaxed and having a good time, it’s the best way to share things that are meaningful.”
Those who jam with him call him the Rock ‘n Roll Rabbi, and his porch is a constant stream of punks, hippies, and other alternative types, covered in tattoos and piercings. While Gootblatt doesn’t necessarily approve of their choices, he’s willing to let a certain amount slide.
After the partying is done, the Torah comes out, and the rabbi is set for instruction. Unfortunately for Gootblatt, this is when a lot of the neighborhood avoids the house.
He has managed to catch one big fish, however. Eddie “Mad Dog” Caridi was the bassist for punk band Murphy’s Law and is a mainstay of the New York punk scene. When he decided to reconnect with his Jewish heritage, he heard about the Rock ‘n Roll rabbi all the way down in Brooklyn, and moved to Woodstock. He’s been living with Gootblatt for three months, and says that the rabbi hopes he will influence the youth who look up to him to learn of their heritage.
“We jam for like and hour, and then he’s like Torah, Torah, Torah, Torah, Torah. He gets overbearing with it.”
(Matthew Streib is traveling across the country on his bicycle exploring religious sites that are inspiring and uniquely American. You can read more about his travels at www.americanpilgrimage.com.)