Yiddish and the Grateful Dead

What in the world ever became of Palo Alto?

written and illustrated by Andrea More

I grew up in a house with mishegas at its center, a Yiddish word that comes from the Hebrew meshuga, which means “crazy.” The television remote was always referred to as the mahoodle. Yiddish origin. As in: “Where’s the mahoodle?”

Our one-story house in the heart of the Silicon Valley was my departure point every morning. I’d open the fakakta (1) garage and get on my bike every weekday to attend Palo Alto High School, the same high school that Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, a founding member of the Grateful Dead, attended several decades prior. His name may be better known than mine but, hey, at least I graduated.

Inside our Palo Alto home: a working mother and a stay-at-home dad who arrived in California as a twenty-something, fresh out of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). My dad, fed up with his mother country whose politics and government continues to elicit a Pavlovian “feh” whenever brought up at the dinner table. (An expression of disgust representative of the sound of spitting.) Bring up Palo Alto’s quickly changing culture and you might hear it uttered in real time.

Living in this particular part of Northern California in 2015 comes with the knowledge that we have become surrounded. A nimbus cloud has appeared overhead and it’s dropping down Stanford-affiliated cult members who want to talk (2) about how they are working on an app (they are always working on an app). This one is apparently going to change the world—or at the very least make finding the best artisan frozen yogurt place quicker, faster and better.

Other words you may overhear after you excuse yourself to go vomit (3): multi-task; bandwidth; interface; optimize; Steve Jobs; Google bus (4).

These words are just another way of communicating: “I made more friends with Apple products than human beings in college and when it comes to control, I’ve found I have very little of it when it comes to the hard-ons I get whenever someone brings up the free market. I don’t come close to grasping any of the dangers intrinsic to capitalism, but I do know how to code and read HTML like one badass motherfucker.”

But long before all of this mishegas, some principle events occurred that led to the founding of the Grateful Dead. Ken Kesey’s Acid Test (5) at the Big Beat Club in Palo Alto took place on December 18, 1965. Novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe wrote about it in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” The date, fifty years ago; the club’s location, 2.7 miles from my home. Sadly I couldn’t make it to the get-together that night. My theory for this absence mostly has to do with the fact that I had yet to be brought into this world. 

Somehow The Big Beat Club, this seminal location of a bygone era that Priuses zip pass everyday on their way to work, has become clouded in the mists of time. It’s on a road that leads to a different road wherein you will eventually be greeted by a row of palm trees that continue to line your peripheral vision until Stanford’s iconic semi-circle of a parking lot and entrance eventually come into view. 

The history of this bohemian downtown scene that spawned Jerry Garcia and Joan Baez should have stuck around, yet it hasn’t in part because of the mass influx of tech guys (6) and the entrepreneurial giants to whom they pledge their allegiance. Giants who have decided to set up their headquarters: Apple, Facebook, Google, Oracle and on and on. The knowledge that an earlier, less tech-driven Palo Alto once existed is dwindling, much like the Yiddish language whose distinctive, nonsensical expressions are on the wane. Neither one completely dead, but both on their way out. 

Yet in spite of our secular, Jewish status, there are certain Yiddish idioms that have insisted on sticking around. Being a More goes beyond knowing that shmuch, putz and shlong all mean the same thing. It would be years until I would learn that what I knew as the mahoodle is what most people simply refer to as “the goddamn TV remote.” 

The More household (7) identifies with a conceptualization of Palo Alto where Stevie Nicks and Bob Weir continue to bum around California Ave. with no particular purpose or destination. In this version of home, the percentage of Stanford graduate students studying engineering has yet to reach its current number, an astoundingly high 40 percent. Jewish deadheads abound and the used bookstore Know Knew Books is still in business; it will be a solid 45 years until lululemon takes over.

 For those regional peers who, like me, also were delivered in Stanford Hospital's maternity ward in the midst of the tech boom, the impact of The Big Beat Club has become shrouded in mystery. 

Regardless of whether you’re headed to the “Valley,” running away from it or couldn’t care less, you can still rely your very own thought-processes without any aid from wireless devices to acknowledge that social factors influence the way we conceptualize our world. This subjective perception of place and time dictates whether the tone in our voice is one of reluctance or pride when we locate a point on a map and explain: “That’s where I grew up. Right there on that spot.” 

I don’t deny being complicit; like so many of my Bay Area neighbors, I also drive a Prius. But guess what: that car has taken me from California to Colorado and, eventually, it will bring me back home, where at least I know I can count on there still being some mishegas.

1. Derived from a multitude of Yiddish words and used to describe something that does not work well, or only functions intermittently. 

2. Here’s an excerpt of a fake albeit very real excerpt of the dialogue: “Can I talk to you about this app? That was a rhetorical question. I’m gonna go ahead and explain it to you anyway. I’m working on an app. It’s really user-friendly and full of several new iterations, actually.”

3. A physiological reaction to exposure to “Silicon Valley Speak.”

4. A major vehicular nuisance that means you’ve made it, big guy.

5. Parties in which LSD-laced Kool-Aid was used to obtain a communal trip.

6. It’s almost always guys.

7. Including Oscar, the 11-month-old puppy and most recent replacement of Dan and Judy’s daughter first and only child Andrea who’s working on trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be at some small liberal arts school in Colorado.