Punk Rock’s Secret, Semitic History

By Judy Berman

Published July 16, 2009.
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Punk rock’s most revered founders include a yeshiva alum named Tamás Erdélyi and a Bronx Jew known to his family as Richard Blum. No, they weren’t managers, producers or label honchos; Erdélyi and Blum are living legends of the mid-1970s punk rock scene, widely celebrated for their bands’ revolutionary three-chord masterpieces.

Both men are also better known by their stage names, Tommy Ramone and Handsome Dick Manitoba.

Ramone, the sole surviving member of the Ramones, and Manitoba, frontman for the Dictators, were hardly the only Jews to shape the movement, as a capacity crowd learned in a program at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, located in Manhattan’s Chelsea area. Lenny Kaye, who’s a guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, and Blondie co-founder Chris Stein joined Manitoba and Ramone in a panel discussion on “Loud, Fast Jews” of New York punk rock.

Kaye, who also served as moderator, warmed up the panelists by asking about their family backgrounds and bar mitzvah memories before moving on to more difficult topics, such as the movement’s controversial appropriation of Nazi imagery. But one central question pervaded the evening’s discussion: How much did Jewish culture influence punk rock?

As the musicians acknowledged, it seems counterintuitive to draw parallels between Judaism and punk: The stereotypes attached to each culture seem mutually exclusive. “You don’t expect Jews to be good in the scuffle of anti-establishment movements,” Kaye said. “Jews were groomed for white-collar jobs.” His parents did not consider making music a “real job,” he recalled. “Jews aren’t supposed to be tough guys,” Manitoba added. “They’re supposed to go to school and be nebbishy.”

Although Jews have made countless contributions to American popular music, Harold Steinblatt, YIVO’s director of cultural affairs and the June 11 event’s organizer, noted that punk was unusual because so many of its progenitors were Jewish.

New York’s pioneering punk scene found its headquarters at CBGB, an East Village dive that served as both performance space and clubhouse before it closed in 2006. The bar’s proprietor, Hilly Kristal, along with CBGB’s fixture and the city’s central punk icon, Joey Ramone (né Jeffrey Hyman), was born into a Jewish family. So was the genre’s forefather, Lou Reed. British punk’s notorious ringmaster Malcolm McLaren is the son of shmatte factory owners. Is this merely a coincidence, or is there something particularly Jewish about the music itself?

“There is a sense of being an outsider in music,” Kaye said, just as growing up in a religious minority may have isolated some Jews who became punks. In a later phone interview, he also cited the cultural influences he had derived from Judaism — “a love of the minor key, a sense of community and clan.” The setting for the music was important, too, he said, because “CBGB’s was a kind of strange ghetto with its own vocabulary and customs.”

Panelists also praised the influence of Jewish artists, entertainers and activists on punk music. Ramone credited Bill Gaines’s Mad Magazine and pulpy EC Comics for teaching him that “sometimes being outrageous is important.” Kaye pointed to the Jewish radical tradition and the folk music of Israeli kibbutzim, while Manitoba reminisced about the Catskills comedians of his youth. “I’m sure that what I spit back has a little Shecky Greene in it,” he admitted, chuckling.

But Stein — and all the panelists, to varying degrees — worried about overstating the connection between punk and Jewish religion and identity. “My Jewishness has always been there, but it’s not an integral part of me,” he said. Raised in Brooklyn’s Flatbush area by secular parents, Stein dismissed punk’s ties to Judaism as “just another facet for people to analyze.”

Perhaps because so many punks assumed stage names in the ’70s, most were unaware of how many other Jews participated in the scene until 2006, when Steven Lee Beeber published “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk” (Chicago Review Press). As Kaye explained, musicians were so wrapped up in absorbing and creating various religious modes of rock ’n’ roll that individuals’ cultural and spiritual backgrounds seemed beside the point.

Sometimes, what Kaye referred to as punk’s use of “shock imagery” even could appear to be antisemitic. Yet when bands referenced Nazism, as Manitoba’s Dictators did in their song “Master Race Rock” (1975), the intent was to satirize and reclaim noxious words and images. “There’s a cathartic effect when you take your deepest fear,” Ramone told the audience, “and either make humor of it, or, in an artistic sense,” transform it. Ramone believes that few artists were truly antisemitic, although he never endorsed plastering swastikas on everything from clothing to concert fliers. “The whole thing that became called punk — we never had any control over it,” he said.

Manitoba compared the use of Third Reich imagery by punk rock bands to Mel Brooks’s films, which poke fun at Nazis. During the panel, he confessed to crying when he watched “Schindler’s List,” and said he would be upset to learn that “Master Race Rock” hurt anyone. Later, in the phone interview, he told of visiting Arturo Vega, the designer famous for creating the Ramones logo, who had an Andy Warhol swastika painting hanging on his wall. “It was his idea of art. I didn’t like it, but I laughed at Mel Brooks,” Manitoba said. “There really is no universal morality for what is truly funny.”

Judy Berman is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn.

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