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The Hidden Jewish History of Woodstock

August 19, 2009

An earlier version of this story appeared in The New Jersey Jewish Standard.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the historic Woodstock Music Festival, which attracted perhaps as many as a half million, mostly young concertgoers. The peaceful behavior of festival goers gave, and still gives Woodstock the aura of being the tangible affirmation of the peace and love ethos of the '60s hippie counterculture. The good vibes were preserved for posterity by the best concert film of the '60s.

As I recall from Hebrew school, the Torah likes the number 40. It rained for 40 days and nights in the story of Noah, the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert, and so on. It seems appropriate on this anniversary to explore Woodstock's many Jewish connections.

The Big Idea

Woodstock was certainly not the first big music festival. Jewish impresario George Wein, now 83, founded the Newport Jazz Festival 55 years ago. In 1959, he founded the Newport Folk Festival, which was the main incubator for the folk music boom of the early 1960s. Wein did this for love of the music, not for money.

Artie Kornfeld
Artie Kornfeld,  pictured here in recent years, was a very young Capitol Records executive when he and Michael Lang conceived of the idea of a big music festival. Photo: Barry Levine.

Another major Woodstock antecedent was the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, put on as charity event with the performers foregoing a fee. In return, the event's impresario, Jewish record executive and music producer Lou Adler, now 74, made sure the musicians had the best in everything, from sound systems to lodging. Many acts that became famous, or much more famous, because of their Monterey appearance were Woodstock headliners including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish.

A mini-explosion of rock festivals followed Monterey, including a three-day fest in Miami in December 1968 that drew 80,000 people. One of the promoters of that concert was Michael Lang, now 65, a Jewish guy from Brooklyn.

In early 1969, Lang became the manager of a rock group and re-located to Woodstock, NY, a pretty little town two hours drive almost due north from New York City. Woodstock had long been an artists colony and, in the mid-'60s, some famous rock musicians, including Bob Dylan, had settled in or near Woodstock.

Seeking a record contract for his group, Lang wangled his way into the office of Capitol Records exec Artie Kornfeld. As Kornfeld told me (and as he writes in his upcoming book, The Piped Piper of Woodstock), he was taken with Lang's energy and the fact that he seemed a conduit to the exploding hippie scene and so-called underground acts. During the course of a couple of months, they exchanged ideas about promotion and hit on throwing a big music festival.

Kornfeld, another Brooklyn/Queens Jew, was born in 1942 into a lower middle class family and isn't all that religious in conventional terms, but wears his Jewishness on his sleeve. In talking to another reporter for a Jewish paper, he introduced himself as "Avraham ben Yisroel Kornfeld. I'm a Kohain born on the stroke of the day of Rosh Hashanah." A musician and songwriter, Kornfeld has many '60s hits to his credit, like "Dead Man's Curve." A producer and discoverer of major acts over four decades, Kornfeld was named Capitol Records first vice president for rock at age 21.

The lawyer for Lang's rock group put Kornfeld and Lang in touch with two Jewish backers, Joel Rosenman, now 67, and John Roberts (1945-2001). Roberts had a multi-million dollar trust as an heir to the Block Drug Co. fortune. The company, headquartered in Jersey City, was started by a Russian Jewish immigrant. Rosenman finished Yale Law in 1966 and around the same time he and Roberts became close buddies. They decided to advertise their interest in business propositions.

Rosenman says that he and Roberts had the idea for a rock festival and Kornfeld and Lang initially approached them only to finance a recording studio in Woodstock. Lang and Kornfeld say they took the festival idea to the "R and R boys." The four guys formed Woodstock Ventures in March, 1969. For a short time, Kornfeld was a silent partner since Capitol Records wouldn't let him work for another entity. But he was so high on the festival that he resigned from Capitol and plunged into Woodstock.

Lang and Kornfeld, decided early on that the festival would be more than a concert--it would be arty and educational. It would include crafts, celebrate the whole youth culture, and have a slightly vague anti-Vietnam war sub-text. The festival poster, designed by Jewish artist Arnold Skolnik, read: "The Woodstock Music and Art Fair; An Aquarian Exposition/ 3 Days of Peace and Music." (and listed musicians). It featured a now-famous drawing of a dove perched on the neck of a guitar.

The four guys picked the name Woodstock for its arty cachet and the town's association with Dylan, even though they knew Woodstock was too small to host the festival. They found a site in the nearby town of Walkill. However, on July 15, 1969, Walkill's politicians bowed to public pressure against thousands of hippies descending on their town and banned the festival.

Enter Max Yasgur

The venue that the team found for the Woodstock festival was a dairy farm near Bethel, N.Y., owned by Jewish farmer Max Yasgur (1919-1973). Bethel is about 75 miles west of the town of Woodstock. Woodstock is in Ulster County, while Bethel is in the western part of Sullivan County. The eastern part of Sullivan County, including the towns of Monticello and Liberty, was once known as the heart of the Borscht Belt.

Max Said Yes front coverThe Borscht Belt refers to the many hotels, bungalows, and summer camps that formerly existed in the area and catered to Jewish customers, mostly from New York City. They were business that grew out of the Jewish farms in the area.

More than 60 years before the hippies, some Eastern European Jewish immigrants began their own back to the land movement in Sullivan County. A Jewish farming population developed as individual Jewish families, drawn by the beauty of the Catskill Mountains and a train line that took their milk to New York City, established dairy and egg farms. By 1910, somewhere between 500-1500 Jewish farmers were in the county, constituting 30% of all American Jewish farmers.

A number of these farmers, to help make ends meet, started to take in boarders. This included the families who ended up founding the famous Grossingers, Kutshers, and Tamarack Lodge resorts.

A whole Jewish world--an ongoing Jewish festival of sorts--emerged in the Borscht Belt. New York City Jews, mostly immigrants and their children, who came of age in the 1920s through the mid-'60s, vacationed each summer in huge numbers at the Jewish-run Catskill lodging facilities that, unlike many other American hotels, welcomed Jews. Scores of famous Jewish entertainers got their start providing entertainment to the resort guests.

The Borscht Belt reached its zenith in the 1950s, as post-war prosperity encouraged the creation of luxury resorts. It was a mecca for the parents of the generation that came of age in the 1960s--the Woodstock, baby-boomer generation. By 1969, the summer of the first moon landing, the Borscht Belt already was starting to decline. It was done in by a combination of jet travel, air conditioning and Jewish assimilation into the larger American society.

Jorma Kaukonen, the lead guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane, which played Woodstock, told me that his group played Grossinger's Hotel about a year before Woodstock. He said it was his sense that the hotel was desperately trying to do "something for the kids" and, in his words, to "appeal to the Dirty Dancing" young crowd.

Sam Yasgur at Woodstock
Sam Yasgur, Max Yasgur's son and the author of a new memoir, at Woodstock in 1969. Photo courtesy of Sam Yasgur.

By 1968, the Airplane had several records which topped the rock charts, so their booking was not that shocking. Kaukonen, the son of a non-Jewish Finnish father and a Russian Jewish mother, was raised secular, but culturally Jewish, so he enjoyed the resort's Jewish food. (In recent years, Kaukonen has become a religious Jew.)

Kaukonen added that he thought about his maternal grandmother, already deceased, when he played Grossinger's. He thought to himself that his bubbe would have enjoyed the hotel.

When Grossinger's booked Jefferson Airplane, it was a case of too little, too late in terms of widening their appeal. Young Jews, like their non-Jewish counterparts, were more drawn to rock fests than old-fashioned resort hotels. The creative, hustling Jewish impresarios were channeling their talents into producing events like the Woodstock festival.

How Yasgur's farm became the festival site is the subject of widely differing stories. Elliot Tiber, whose parents owned a very bad, small motel not far from Bethel, contacted Kornfeld, and told them he had a permit to run an arts festival on the motel property in August. Everyone agreed that Tiber's property was unsuitable for the festival. Tiber says he then suggested the farm of "his friend, Max Yasgur." Tiber wrote a memoir, Taking Woodstock, about being a closeted, gay Jewish guy who helped create Woodstock. A film, also entitled Taking Woodstock based on the memoir and directed by Ang Lee of Brokeback Mountain fame, opens August 28.

Kornfeld told me that Tiber never told him about Yasgur. He says he found out about Yasgur, though his own personal contacts. He then sent Lang out to check out the farm. It proved suitable and Lang, Kornfeld says, made the deal.

Yasgur's son, Sam Yasgur, has also written a new memoir, Max S. Yasgur: the Woodstock Festival's Famous Farmer. Sam, who was 27 in 1969, and is now the head civil attorney for Sullivan County, tells me he asked his mother, Miriam Yasgur, now 89, about Tiber. Miriam, who is still "all there," said her husband never even knew Tiber. It was her recollection that a real estate agent, looking for a suitable property for Lang, contacted her husband.

Yasgur was no country yokel. He ran one of the biggest dairies in the county and had studied real estate law at NYU. He was also no radical. He was a registered Republican who supported the war in Vietnam. But he was also a fierce opponent of intolerance and bias.

Sam Yasgur told me that most of the Jewish dairy farmers were located in eastern Sullivan County. Western Sullivan County was mostly non-Jewish and there was, historically, a lot of anti-Semitism in that part of the county. When Max Yazgur moved his dairy operation to a new farm in the western part of the county in the '50s, he dealt with the cool reception of his neighbors by "being a better farmer than them."

In the summer of '69, Yasgur did need money. It was a very rainy summer that had ruined the hay meant to feed his cattle the next year. When Lang showed up, they quickly made a deal to rent his farm for $75,000.

The town zoning board attempted to bar the festival at the last minute. An angry Yasgur confronted some members of the board and told them that Americans in uniform fought and died to give us all freedom and that freedom extended to those they viewed as draft-dodging, long-haired, anti-war hippies. Yasgur added that he didn't agree with hippies' views on the government, drug use or free love. Still, they had a right to be in the town. Then, Max ended with what Sam Yasgur calls his knock-out punch, "Facing the [Board] directly with something that had long rankled him about them, Max said: 'What are you planning to do next? Are you going to try to throw me out of town because I am a Jew?'"

Yasgur's cousin, Abigail Yasgur, former librarian of the largest Jewish library in Los Angeles, has just written an illustrated children's book called, Max Says Yes. It is charming account of the festival (no sex or drugs in the book. The title is accurate--Max said "yes" and Woodstock happened. He not only said yes, he got those who said no to back down by shaming them in the style of a biblical prophet.

The Festival

Lang was the Woodstock field general, getting the site ready with a small army of workers. Kornfeld, meanwhile, raised money up to the last minute via mail order ticket sales and the sales of the film rights to Warner Brothers. But the four Jewish guys had done their jobs too well. They booked such a great line-up of music acts, and promoted the festival so well, that far too many people showed up on the first day (at the gates or clogging the access roads).

Barry Melton
Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish in 1974.

If 80,000 had shown up, they would have had a chance at doing a controlled, artistically satisfactory festival that made a modest profit. But even before the festival gates opened, many more than 80,000 people were approaching the site. By the end of the first day, upwards of a half million people were at the site or on the roads attempting to reach the festival. A humanitarian and financial disaster loomed.

The four promoters then made critical decisions that evidenced Jewish respect for life and art at its best, but left them without anything to show financially for years. First, early on the first day, they decided to take the flimsy fences down and turn it into a free concert rather than risk chaos. By doing this, they established a "good vibe" that had the huge crowd working with them as a collective entity, helping each other despite a shortage of food at the festival site, and a lot of rain storms that turned Yasgur's farm into a sea of mud.

Rosenman and Roberts reached deep in their pockets to pay for food and clean-up costs. The crowd stayed happy because the music kept on playing. The music played because Rosenman paid off a handful of performers who demanded their money up front. Meanwhile, Kornfeld cajoled most of the musical acts into agreeing to wait for their full fee.

The four guys sent out a plea for more food, which was answered by most of the people of Bethel and by the members of the Monticello Jewish community center, who made and sent thousands of sandwiches.

Woodstock's relative proximity to New York City meant the event got huge media attention as the outlines of the main story emerged--a huge festival marked by great music and no crime, save for illegal drug use. There was, however, near violence when Jewish radical Abbie Hoffman, high on drugs, interrupted the music of the English band, The Who, to advocate for a radical musician then in a Michigan jail. A member of The Who, perhaps not knowing who Hoffman was, quickly pushed Hoffman off the stage.

Kaukonen told me that he and the rest of the Airplane drove to Woodstock via back roads to play their set and drove out the same way after their set was done. He then went to New York City to appear on Dick Cavett's talk show with some other Woodstock musicians. The festival was such a media sensation that Cavett bumped other guests to do a special Woodstock show while the festival was still playing. It was when he got back to New York City, Kaukonen told me, and saw all the media about the festival, that he realized that Woodstock was "something really special."

Coda

Jack Casady, the bass player in  Jefferson Airplane, once said, "Woodstock was an eclectic gathering that tried to offer some hope for the future of mankind. It maybe wasn't going to change the world, but it was going to change our world. You didn't know if it was going to happen again or if it was a one time thing ? People embraced the music as one of the ways to share the human condition. You were awed by the enormity of it."

Barry Melton
Barry Melton today--photo courtesy of Barry Melton.

But Jewish musician Barry Melton, "the Fish" of the group Country Joe and the Fish, has another perspective. He told me that he sees Woodstock as an end of an era. It was peaceful, but it occurred when the optimism of the counterculture was already fading due to the Chicago convention riots and the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Plus the logistics of the festival were a nightmare. Since Woodstock, most large scale rock concerts have been held in big stadiums so that they can be more controlled--and more corporate.

Not long after the festival, Rosenman and Roberts bought out Kornfeld and Lang for only $32,000. In the decades that followed, the "R and R boys" promoted other events and, perhaps, made some money from the rights they retained to Woodstock associated products. Lang and Kornfeld worked together for a couple of years, but had a falling out. Kornfeld does not consider Lang to be a good or honorable man. He was especially appalled by Lang's promotion of a Woodstock reunion concert in 1999 marked by the financial gouging of festival goers and serious violence. "I love Michael," he told me, "But I don't like him."

In recent years, Kornfeld has earned the title of "Father of Woodstock" by spearheading the successful effort to save the Yasgur farm and turning it into a site for public music concerts called Bethel Woods. Like many of his generation, Kornfeld developed a severe cocaine addiction, which he overcame in 1982. He recalls speaking a Hebrew prayer at the moment he chose sobriety for good. Kornfeld still feels possessed by the Woodstock spirit--which he dovetails with the traditional Jewish ethical ideal of repairing the world. This October, he is putting together concert in San Francisco for charity featuring many musicians who played Woodstock.

Yasgur's farm was ruined by the crush of the festival goers and he was even sued by some of his neighbors for their losses. But he gained worldwide fame when the Woodstock film came out. It showed him speaking from the stage, sincerely welcoming all the young people and praising their peaceful ways. Yasgur moved to Florida in 1971. He refused to cash in by selling the rights to his name to corporate advertisers. Also in 1971, Yasgur and his wife, Miriam, visited Israel. According to one oft-repeated anecdote (which neither his son nor his wife could confirm) Max met former Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion in Israel. When Ben-Gurion was told Yasgur was from Bethel, N.Y., he reportedly said, "Oh, wasn't that where Woodstock was held?"

If anything, the Woodstock Rock Fest made the Borscht Belt hotels seem more old fashioned and unhip than ever and helped hasten their demise. Meanwhile, the children of the Borscht Belt generation--the so-called Woodstock Nation--have grown grey and, in many respects, their dream of a loving, peaceful society has mostly faded, too.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish for "grandmother." The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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