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 Filipino” or “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?”