‘Punk Jews,’ Why we made it?

August 30, 2011 2:50 am 9 comments

People often ask me about an issue that is both the easiest and hardest to explain. Jewish identity in the 21st century, the subject in question is a complex issue. Ask a group of people how they define Judaism, and you will get a broad spectrum of answers. Some will say it’s a religion; a culture; an ethnicity; or a nation. Some find Judaism fulfilling, while others find it burdensome.

Though I have not come across one clear answer, I have noticed a common sentiment: My young peers struggle with how to express their Jewish identity. “I’m a bad Jew,” is what college students up to those in their 30s often state. Neither observant nor knowledgeable about Judaism, they have become alienated. As a result, they relinquish their entitlement to a meaningful Jewish identity.“I am a bad Jew,” are words that trouble me, because they disenfranchise the individual and put down the entire Jewish people. Have you ever heard someone say I’m a bad Filipinoor I’m a bad Italian?

People from the religious community often times feel trapped, because they have not found meaningful identification through the resources available to them. Consequently, they feel that they must abandon Judaism. Struggling with similar issues myself, as a documentarian, the seed for a film that would take on this topic was probably growing in my subconscious for a long time.

“Punk Jews” is a documentary that follows a community of artists, activists, and musicians who express their Jewish identity in unconventional ways that challenge stereotypes and break down barriers. Hassidic punk rockers, Yiddish street performers and African-American-Jewish activists, the characters in “Punk Jews,”show an emerging movement in New York City of people asserting their Jewish identity by defying the norm at any cost.

Director, Jesse Zook Mann and I, began to explore our own Jewish identities in 2007. That heralded the birth of “Punk Jews.”

I grew up in a traditional Jewish household in Nyack, N.Y. We kept kosher and went to synagogue. I attended Hebrew day school, was bar mitzvahed, went to Jewish summer camps and youth groups, and spent holidays with my adorable Bubby and Zaidy, Holocaust survivors. This seems typical for a middle-class suburban American Jew. Jesse grew up on Long Island in a completely secular household and did not practice anything Jewish. As an adult, he had many questions about Judaism without knowing where to direct them. This too, is typical for a middle-class suburban American Jew.

In spite of my strong Jewish identity, there were always aspects that I deemed rigid, backwards, and ensnared in tradition. Then there were sides of Judaism with which I flat-out disagreed. (Little did I know at the time that disagreement and debate are entrenched in Jewish philosophy and practice.) So, as a teenager, I abandoned my Jewish identity, and punk rock filled the void.

I spent a decade playing in a punk band, called 3 Monkeys Named BOB, and organizing local punk shows. The DIY (do-it-yourself) work ethic and supportive community really motivated me to want to do good deeds, spread messages of unity and peace, and inspire people to take initiative in improving their community and the world. It sounds like another important element of Judaism, Tikkun Olam.

In my 20s, I discovered that many Jews were involved in the punk rock culture of the 70s and that artists I had looked up to, were Jewish themselves — Joey Ramone of the Ramones and Fat Mike of NOFX. Intrigued and empowered by the Jewish foundations of punk rock, I began to desire a real connection to my Jewish heritage. “Real” meant fulfilling, interesting, and on my own terms.

Jesse and I, professionals in the TV industry, sought out individuals who were “out-of-the-box.” Rather than speaking with rabbis and academics, we asked punk-rockers, hip-hop emcees, artists and activists on the forefront of this issue, what they thought about Judaism in the 21stcentury. We discovered African-American-Jewish- Orthodox, hip-hop artist, Y-Love. He told us about a weekly gathering, “Cholent,”which brings together Jews from all walks of life, aptly named after the stew traditionally cooked for the Sabbath, which combines a wide mixture of ingredients. Here we discovered an explosive underground Jewish subculture in New York City, and we met the most interesting, and diverse group of Jews we could ever imagine.

After a few months of attending “Cholent,” we chose six people to tell their respective stories and highlight the struggles that surround Jewish identity in the 21st century. Many ask why the title, “Punk Jews” when only one of the stories, Hassidic punk band, Moshiach Oi! is about punk rock. Although usually characterized by loud and fast music, the essence of “punk” means to stand up for what you believe in, which is evident in every one of the chronicles in “Punk Jews.” Each one of these individuals is fighting for a meaningful Jewish identity; thus, they are smashing stereotypes and sparking a Jewish renaissance in New York City. These unique individuals enabled us to approach Jewish identity in the 21st century through a variety of artistic and critical media.

Young Jews today are certainly not at a loss. On the contrary, we have the power to decide who we want to be, a privilege of which many of our ancestors were deprived. We create culture; it does not create us. We want “Punk Jews” to excite and draw young people by imparting a vital sense of freedom and ownership over their Jewish identities. To do so one must take the initiative. Young Jews cannot rely on large institutions alone to engage us, nor can institutions expect to reach every single young Jew. The goal of “Punk Jews” is not to provide answers but to start a dialogue, an exploration, a call to action if you will that will bring together people from all walks of life, who share a common heritage and ask the same question:

“What does Judaism mean to me and how can I bring it into my world?”

9 Comments

  • This is fantastic. I have been struggling with what being
    Jewish means for years and now having children how it is part of our lives. I have been involved in punk music, arts and alternative to traditional Judaism since my teens. I left my family out. It was like my secret that I felt like I couldn’t share. The bravery of this film is beautiful! I can’t wait to see it.

  • Evan-
    I am very touched by your assessment of how different Jewish backgrounds yield a rich blend of Jews today. Coming from a background with only the secular side in my own family upbringing, I have found much meaning by becoming involved in more things Jewish over time.

    You have found a way to bridge the very diverging traditions in your work and we all need that bridge.

    Best,
    R. Lyon

  • LILLIAN LITVACK

    u r a very talented artist and writer love xxxx

  • LILLIAN LITVACK

    beautifully wtitten — u r a very talented artist

  • you shoulda done it about joey ramone, your project as it was could have made more sense if it was called “some different jews” “artsy jews”, nothing punk about those featured, except maybe the girl artist in LIC.

    • What is so punk about Joey Ramone? What did he ever stand up for? “Some Different Jews”….”Artsy Jews”…..just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Punk Jews” does. Wouldn’t you say? I don’t see people lining up to see a movie called ‘Some Different Jews.”

  • Very meaningful and heartfelt.

  • yehh ive always tried to be an individual, whenever i let the group labels start to settle, prejudice usually follows

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Music US & Canada Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Pop superstar Lady Gaga on Thursday accepted an award from Jewish human rights group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on behalf of her Born This Way Foundation, which strives to combat bullying among young people. “Your philosophies are so in line with ours,” she said of the ADL upon accepting the Making a Difference Award in a videotaped message, which was shown at a ceremony in New York City. “We want to help young people know that their feelings and who they are on [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    JNS.org – Eighty years young, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk. From his Jewish upbringing in Canada to the present day, Cohen has always explored his spiritual side. This month, the singer-songwriter released the CD (May 12) and iTunes (on May 8 of this year) formats of his latest album, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, which features live recordings from his world tours in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Cohen’s Popular Problems was voted by Rolling Stone [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    JNS.org – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) head Sepp Blatter said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that contrary to Palestinian complaints, Israel has not violated any FIFA statutes and should not be suspended from international soccer’s governing body. “We should not come to one federation saying we will exclude them,” said Blatter, the Jerusalem Post reported. “If the national association is fulfilling its obligations then there is no need to intervene,” he said. “I’m on a [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Middle East Sports Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish human rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) said on Tuesday it was “appalled” by a Palestinian Football Association initiative to suspend Israel from FIFA, calling it another “front waged in the context of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.” “We are appalled at the temerity of the Palestinan Football Association (PFA) demand that FIFA suspend Israel at your forthcoming Congress in Zurich,” wrote the group’s international relations director, Dr. Shimon Samuels, in a letter to FIFA President Joseph [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    The lead actor in Son of Saul, an Auschwitz thriller featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, told the UK’s The Guardian that he believes God was “holding the hand” of each Jew who died in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. “I do not for one nanosecond like to pretend that God is off the hook. He could and should have stopped it at a much earlier stage,” Géza Röhrig, 48, said. ”But I would not be able to get [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys singer Howie Dorough took to Instagram on Tuesday to marvel about climbing the famed Masada fortress with his band during their visit to Israel, where they will perform this week for the first time. The group’s second day of sightseeing in the Jewish state included the Masada hike, and taking a mud bath at the Dead Sea. A picture from the band’s official Twitter page shows the five singers covered in mud. While relaxing in the Dead Sea, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews US & Canada ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    A new book and its upcoming film adaptation tell the true story of how three former yeshiva students who habitually smoked marijuana scored a $300 million contract from the U.S. government to supply weapons for the Afghan Army, the New York Daily News reported on Sunday. Arms and the Dudes details how the Miami Beach potheads became “the most unlikely gunrunners in history,” according to the book’s author, investigative reporter Guy Lawson. The tale begins with Efraim Diveroli, nephew of [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    JNS.org – Natalie Portman, who directs and stars in the new Hebrew-language film adaptation of author Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, says that despite Oz’s record as a vocal left-wing critic of Israel, her film is not political. Like the book on which it is based, Portman’s film is about a young boy at the time of the founding of the state of Israel. “I think the movie is very much about this very particular, specific family story. Of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.