It was a different era, defined by a generation of youth that believed it would heal the world with love and usher in an age of peace.
Woodstock, a three-day festival of music held in August 1969, was a reflection of that time, as more than a half-million people came to upstate New York, gathering on the land of Jewish farmer Max Yasgur, for what was officially billed as “An Aquarian Experience: 3 Days of Peace and Music.”
Organizers of the concert — including Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, who were all Jewish — could not have predicted the enormity and lasting significance of Woodstock. Neither could they have anticipated the vast challenges that would be faced. For starters, there was a last-minute change of venue. Then, an expected crowd of 100,000 swelled to 500,000, causing shortages of food and water. Torrential rain created rivers of mud.
None of that mattered. The festival, which boasted sets by 34 of the top performers of the decade, was a huge success, and became a makeshift, but nonetheless halcyon, village, albeit with loud music.
Five decades have passed, but memories of Woodstock are still vivid for two Jewish Pittsburghers, and a former Jewish Pittsburgher, who were there.
David Ainsman, attorney, Pittsburgh
Ainsman was 19 and a student at the University of Pittsburgh when he and a “vanload” of friends headed to upstate New York for what they expected to be three mellow days of music, similar to a small blues festival in Ann Arbor they had attended the previous month.
“We had no idea when we left what we were getting into,” recalled Ainsman. “We thought we would lay back again and enjoy great music. But we found as we approached the area that the traffic stopped on these back-country roads, and there were lots of people walking around, and they all had long hair, and they were all in various states of various kinds of dress, and they acted as though there was no authority over them. They were free.
“And that went on the entire time,” Ainsman continued. “Very quickly we realized that it was not going to be a quiet three days enjoying music, and that all of the fencing and the infrastructure that had been created to handle the people was completely inadequate.”
Still, despite the disorder, what Ainsman witnessed was “extraordinary.”
“Within a day, a city of half a million people popped up in the countryside,” he said. “And for three days, there was no violence. A pop-up city of half a million people, and no violence, no fights, nothing. A community was created out of nowhere.”
Some people assumed the responsibility of feeding the crowd, medical personnel came in and set up tents for those who were ill. Others set up tents to shelter people from the rain.
“It was like a 500,000-person family,” Ainsman said. “People don’t look at it that way; they think, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, of which there was plenty, particularly the rock ’n’ roll. It was incredible music. And it was incredible to realize that we could have a culture that was really based on peace and love. We actually believed that. This was a pop-up city of 500,000 people, and community was built instantly. It was incredible.”
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Ainsman was getting a lesson in community-building.
“As my life went on and [my wife] Meryl [Ainsman] and I were so involved in helping to build this community and other communities, I came to understand that that part of the experience was very real,” he said. “It was not really discussed afterward that much, it was not emphasized, but it was pretty amazing. It’s almost miraculous. It’s not a viable culture long-term, but the take-away is people really can live their lives being concerned about the welfare of other people, and helping others.”
Mickie Diamond, psychotherapist, Pittsburgh
Diamond was 17, living in her parents’ house at Sackett Lake, a community in upstate New York, along with her older sister and younger brother. Her parents, who worked in the city, would often leave the three teenagers alone in the house.
“We knew Woodstock was coming, and at the time tickets were like $21 for the whole weekend, and to us, that was a fortune,” she said.
On the second day of Woodstock, Diamond was in South Fallsburg, “just hanging out,” when two friends from New York City came by on a motorcycle. They stopped and told her they were going to Woodstock.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll come with you,’” Diamond recalled. “I had nothing with me. I just hopped on the motorcycle, and so the three of us went on a motorcycle. It was the only way in on Saturday — I didn’t observe Shabbos then — because all the cars were backed up.”
The three had no food with them, no sleeping bags or blankets, and only a little money.
“We basically were fed raw oatmeal, that’s what they were giving to the people because there were a lot of people to feed,” she said. “And because we didn’t have a sleeping bag or anything, I slept in my friend’s crash helmet because it was padded — it was my pillow.”
After finally falling asleep, she was awakened early Sunday morning by Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane yelling: “Good morning, everybody!”
“It was very irritating because I wanted to sleep,” Diamond said.
Besides the amazing music — particularly The Who and Sly and the Family Stone — what is etched in Diamond’s mind is the feeling of goodwill that infused the atmosphere.
“You felt really calm and really peaceful,” said Diamond. “You weren’t afraid of anybody hurting you or anything. It was just this wonderful celebration of a generation. I guess people were getting high. I didn’t. I didn’t feel like I needed it. It was just so cool to be part of that. And hearing all the bands. It was just an unbelievable feeling. It was a feeling of solidarity with a generation. I don’t know that any other generation had that feeling like we did.”
Diamond and her friends left the festival on Sunday afternoon.
“We were hungry,” she said. “And I had to go home and tell my mother I was OK. She didn’t know where I was. She had no idea.”
The weekend “was about peace and love,” Diamond explained. “We thought that we were the generation who was going to bring in all this good stuff. We were going to heal the world — tikkun olam, but we didn’t call it that.”
Mark Schreiber, former Pittsburgh broadcast journalist, who moved to Harrisburg in 1987 to work for Gov. Robert Casey.
Schreiber still has the three $6 tickets he purchased for each day of the festival. When the then-19-year-old college student arrived at Woodstock after driving there from Farrell, Pennsylvania, the gates were already down and people were entering the grounds for free.
Along with three friends and his mother — a Holocaust survivor who he dropped off along the way in New Jersey to attend a bat mitzvah — Schreiber headed off in his grandfather’s “souped up” Pontiac LeMans for “the music event of my lifetime,” he said.
“Driving in on Friday, it was almost like the Old West, with a wagon train,” he remembered. “On Route 17B in New York, there were miles of cars; it was insane. There was a car on fire, hippies everywhere.”
Finding parking wasn’t easy, so Schreiber left his car in a random farmer’s field.
“The miracle of Woodstock was that on Sunday morning, after 36 hours of drugs, music and crazy stuff, my car was where I left it,” he said. “And it was also a miracle that I remembered where it was.”
On Friday night, Schreiber heard Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Ravi Shankar. On Saturday, he heard Santana, Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival, among others, which Schreiber described as “the most incredible music I ever heard in my life.”
He recalled hearing “Gracie Slick singing ‘Sunrise’ as the sun went up” on Sunday morning. “That can’t be duplicated,” he said.
Food and water were scarce, and the only provision Schreiber brought along was a bottle of Old Grand-Dad. He recalls coming upon a milk truck on its side on the road, “and people ransacking it,” and trays of food on long tables provided by a nearby commune.
Although he had been separated from his friends for the entire festival, he managed to find them early Sunday morning.
“Then, I found my car, and made it back to New Jersey to attend the bat mitzvah reception on Sunday afternoon,” Schreiber said. “I fit in Woodstock around a bat mitzvah.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at