A family business about connectivity between all peoples, experiences, objects and geographical locales, inspired by parenting, Semitism, and a whole lot of rock and roll.
LOVE & LIGHT
Sometimes, what we're meant to choose choses us. When we opened our shop in 2021, Rachel, aka "Loony," the mama behind Whole Phamily, reached out suggesting we sell her kippahs. We had barely started carrying other people's products at that point, so I was hestitant to take them on, but it wouldn't have made sense to say no as we are located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. There are also a lot of Phish fans who live nearby, so the interesection of interests was impossible to ignore. When I received Rachel's first shipment, it came with a hand written letter explaining the meaning behind her Kippahs. I love learning about what motivates people to create items for sale, and I'm endlessly fascinated by the many ways different ways people live and their varying belief systems. Rachel's letter piqued my curiousity, and her answers to my follow up questions below made me want to ask her even more.
-Taylor Swope, founder Little Hippie
Why we chose Whole Phamily
Created by Rachel Loonin Steinerman
Q&A with Rachel
When did you start making kippahs? What led you to it?
The first post on Whole Phamily’s Instagram feed is from September 29, 2014. It features the original Phish yarmulke that we produce. The OhKeePah is resting on top of a bust of Albert Einstein, which my husband won from his high school science olympiad. For about 8 years prior, I was blogging about parenting, semitism and a whole lotta rock and roll under the name Whole Phamily. My then-7 year old daughter knew how to use a sewing machine, and I thought it would be fun to create upcycled Little Ragers merch like hoodies and onesies. She shared in the profits and got to practice her sewing skills. We had our first table at PhanArt in 2015 in Philadelphia. It was fun to be a part of this community in this artist-creator way. This was a way we could jump in for a bit and then go back to our minivan suburban family life without fully going on tour. In addition to the one of a kind pieces that my daughter made, I thought of other things to produce that would be a positive addition to our community. Headgear of various types was an organic choice. The idea of a Phish yarmulka came to me since we are very involved with the Jewish community. We send our children to Jewish day schools, yeshivas and summer camps and are active members of multiple synagogues and communal organizations. There was a niche need and opportunity.
We outsourced the production of the OhKeePah. The very first version with our first vendor was an absolute bomb! I felt terrible about it, but I just wanted to get it out there. I sold about 7 of them to my early adopters who found me on Instagram and through friends, however within a year I found a more professional yarmulke maker and replaced all of the original OhKeePahs that I sold. I felt much more at peace once I was able to get those replaced.
Why did you choose Whole Phamily as the name for this endeavor?
Initially, Whole Phamily was a blog that started in 3.0 a month after I attended the 5/31/09 Fenway show. My memory is foggy rather groggy, but I’m pretty sure I came up with the name “Whole Phamily” while I was at that show. Who wasn’t walking on cloud nine to be back seeing Phish? This was my first show of 3.0 and I was so elated that I got to see Phish in Boston where I first got into them during college in the 90s. I must have heard of the word and spelling “Phamily” at that point but only in a tangential indirect way. By adding the word “Whole” I felt connected to the greater Phish scene. I love looking around between the band and the fans and just feeling that feeling of connected all-oneness. So, I thought of the term Whole Phamily as an all-encompassing term for all of us who love Phish. This show had the debut of “Light” and I was blown away by every single lyric of that song, especially coming right at the start of the 3.0 era. The lyric “I see the future is less and less there” resonated with me in a deep way since you just didn’t know what the future would bring now that they were back. It was very much a Be Here Now moment of appreciating the present. It's quite possible that “Light” is what inspired me to think of Whole Phamily. Back home in New York a month later, I was in the thick of parenting three young children ages 6 and under. Concurrently, I found myself often thinking of Phish. So, I started blogging as a way to positively interact with my own journey that I could not get to every show I wanted to see. It helped me channel my Phish love and energy since I was always thinking about Phish anyway. I had contributed here and there to the phish.net and Phantasy Tour, but I wanted to create my own original body of work while following the band from home. It was a stream of consciousness blog which addressed the things that made up my own life at the time: parenting, Semitism and a whole lotta rock and roll.
As I was trying to figure out exactly what Whole Phamily meant to me, I thought I summed it up with this sentence early on: Whole Phamily is about connectivity between all peoples, experiences, objects and geographical locales. Some of my early posts were about Jewish last names, numerical synchronicity, and other music I was listening to at the time. It had some Phish references but it was more a cultural commentary on the arts, food and life. It wasn’t only about Phish, but it was inspired by their music.
Can you share some insight on the distinction between the term yarmulke and kippah? Why do you call yours OhkeePahs?
They are both the same thing: a Jewish skullcap. Kippah is Hebrew and Yarmulke is Yiddish for the same headcovering. Jewish tradition has a requirement for men to cover their heads as a sign of respect and reverence for G-d. But you don’t have to be Jewish to wear an OhKeePah. In fact, wearing one would be respectful: Rosie, the beloved caretaker of my synagogue growing up, wasn’t Jewish but he wore a kippah when he was in the building.
When I first started making them, my friend Josh Fleet suggested the word OhKeePah to me because it is a play on words. First of all, the Fishman Donuts look like letter O’s. Hence, OhKeePah. Not everyone gets it because not everyone knows the word kippah (more people are familiar with yarmulke). It goes much deeper and way more cosmic than simple donuts. In Ya Mar, Mike sings the line “He had an Oh-Kee-Pah.” Mike is Jewish and went to a Jewish day school and definitely knows the word kippah. Incidentally, I was recently at the Mexico shows and got to see Mike sing that Ya Mar going into Sample (also a Jewishy tune) from up front, which felt completely right and synchronous to me. Also there was the OhKeePah Ceremony which were long practice sessions the band used to self-impose on themselves. So, it was a type of ceremony.
You can wear an OhKeePah to any kind of ceremony, it doesn’t have to be just Jewish. So, it’s a very fitting name. There’s a mention on the Phish.net about “keepahs” in connection to the OhKeePah Ceremony. So I like to think that Whole Phamily is doing something right.
At the Friday Dick's show last year you gave me one of your Love & Light bracelets. Can you share the meaning of that?
It is a gift that I give here and there to Phish fans of all backgrounds as a gesture of that feeling of love and all-oneness that I feel through loving this band, like when the band jams out a type 2 jam and you feel the world is all good. The bracelet is a Tree of Life which is a Jewish concept but it’s also a universal symbol of connectivity. Trees are eternal and have ways of communicating with each other. The bracelet is a way to build connections and express to others something from my unique soul which transcends language and speech. I value the teaching of loving your fellow as yourself, and what better way to do that then by giving a token of kindness to others? I believe everything happens for a reason, and at this very moment I am hearing Jerry sing on my bluetooth speaker “They love each other….L-rd you can see that it’s true.” There’s a reason for that!
To my fellow Jewish funky b’s that I meet at shows, I add in Shabbat candles, and I call the project “Love and Light on Friday Night.” How I arrived at this is a longer story:
For a long while I tried keeping my Phish and Jewish lives separate but multiple forces kept pushing me towards authenticity. I don’t go to shows on Shabbat (Friday night) or Jewish holidays, but I tried downplaying this fact to other phans. It’s my own personal thing and I didn’t need to remind people of what I do. I thought to myself, “what relevance would this hold in the Phish scene?” Yet, in the early years of 3.0 I started talking about the idea of light with other Jewish funky b’s I’d meet at shows. My friend Jen encouraged me to never lose my sparkle and just be authentic myself. And so I started thinking about that more. And Jewish women would come up to me and ask me questions. One time a friend asked me to help her gather a group to say kaddish for her late sister after a show in SPAC.
So, I would ask Jewish women that I just met at shows: where do you go when the Kuroda lights go out? I would tell them “I don’t Roll on Shabbos.” But people don’t always know what to make of that other than it’s a line from The Big Lebowski. I would say, there’s something called Shabbat. And I would just sort of talk about it, and that’s it. I was so proud that I was finally “out” with my Judaism at shows, so I shared this with numerous Rabbi friends of mine. They all asked me, “and do you give out candles too?” For about a year I replied that I’m not that type of person, no way not me. That’s the type of person I would have walked away from, don’t remind me of my Judaism at Phish! And yet, the forces kept pushing me towards my authentic self.
There is a Chassidic teaching about being a lamplighter. It’s a metaphor connected back to when a person would go around lighting the street lights with a long pole. But this is about lighting the lights inside of people. But the flame isn’t mine. No matter where they are, even if they’re in a desert or at sea a lamplighter should go and light the lamps. But first you refine yourself. So, I tried doing that. I learned from some incredibly inspiring, giving, strong Jewish women who live all over the world to make the world a kinder, better place. And as a Jewish woman I felt that I had an opportunity to share actual lights with other Jewish women at shows. So I came to a conclusion this is just what is right for me to do. A few years ago I packed up some organza bags with tea lights, a card explaining “Love and Light on Friday Night” and included a small gift of jewelry that, once again, my then teenaged daughter who learned to make jewelry, put together. It’s really tremendous, the positive response that I have gotten and the wonderful conversations it has started with other Jewish women at Phish shows. I have given out over 200 packs of Shabbat candles. Over the pandemic, I have also sent these packages out to female Jewish Phish fans across the country. These are my gifts to my Jewish sisters.
What do you hope to inspire in the Phish community with your products?
More love and light! There’s a Rainbow family song with the lyrics: “Deep inside my heart I’ve got this everlasting light. It’s shining like the sun it radiates on everyone and the more that I give the more I’ve got to give.” It’s universal but it’s also a classically Jewish idea. Unfortunately there are pockets of darkness and pain in our scene. I hope that my small contribution can help make it a better place and enhance the good that already exists within every one of us.
You can say something but words are only words. Actions are really impactful. So I try to act with kindness, but no one is 100% without fault. I made some mistakes even very recently but that happens to everyone, and I try to do better the next time!
As an Orthodox Jew and a lover of Phish, where do those two strong influences intersect in your life? Do you find any conflicts between the two?
A friend of mine, Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, says that labels belong inside of shirts, so I tend to not use the big O word to describe myself. I do try to live, as best I can, a meaningful Jewish life. As a longtime Phish fan, I also tend to see the world from the perspective of many a Phish tune. Not every single thing from either culture resonates fully with me, which I think is reasonable, so I try to gravitate towards the things that feel right, especially with Phish. I take what works and leave the rest behind (though with Jewish things I will do things that I do not always understand, that’s a different story). These days I am not a huge fan of vulgarities and frequent cursing, and I know I’m in the minority in the Phish world when it comes to that, so when they play a song like FYF or Ass-Handed I personally don’t love it and I’ll just tune out or take a break.
I also try to remember that Phish is, at the end of the day, a rock and roll band where we go to have fun. Yes, there are times when I feel that my life was changed by rock and roll like Lou Reed (a Jew who stated that his religion was Rock and Roll) sang. And, yes, there are moments of pure bliss that I experience at a show which feel way more spiritual than times I have felt in personal prayer inside or outside a synagogue. However, there’s a lot more to Judaism than what happens on the high holidays or inside a building. For me it’s a day-in day-out existence. It’s literally a miracle to wake up every day and walk on two feet. So, being open to those nuggets of bliss on an average non-show day is pretty life-affirming.
You mentioned to me that you hope to see Phish play in Israel one day similar to Grateful Dead playing at the Sphinx in Egypt in 1978. What do you feel would come out of that happening? What are the ripple effects you can see following Phish shows in Israel?
With complete confidence (in the Jewish tradition this is called having emunah and bitachon) I believe that if Phish played in Israel it would be good for the Phish scene and ultimately for the world at large. We are taking baby steps towards the golden age of miracles. Like the Jewish people, the Phish scene is just a blip on the radar when it comes to world population. However our energy force is tremendous. There are so many wonderful people in our community doing important and meaningful work. We have the potential for making positive changes on our planet even if in small increments. It’s truly an honor to be able to share in a groove in this way.
If you listen to Big Steve Parish talk on his XM Radio show about their time in Egypt, you will hear him talking about all sorts of far-out stuff that happened. They discovered an actual book of the Dead while they were there. He recently said on the radio that they’re uncovering new things in that region all the time, and something big happened there in 1978.
Phish in Israel in a practical sense is a huge undertaking. Would everyone feel the ripple effects? I don’t know. We all know that going to Phish shows is a most pleasant, chill vibe. People feel safe there. Happy. Blissful. The culture of kindness that exists at Phish is one that we all love. Israel is a place that could use more love and chill vibes and just the best musicianship around today. I’m not talking about making a political statement. More like let’s bring our tribe to a very holy tribal spot on our earth. It can only bring more good to the world. I walked around Israel in 2017 with a sign that said “Phish in Israel” and people didn’t know what to make of it. The security guards at the Western Wall wouldn’t let me bring in the sign, maybe they thought I was going to instigate something. Except, I ran into my friend Pesach Stadlin in the shuk in Jerusalem who happened to have a group of 18 year old American kids he was teaching that day. I gave them my sign and these guys danced and sang with my sign. Pesach knows. A lot of my friends know. It’s not a secret. There are a lot of people who agree with me that Phish in Israel would be very special.