A few months ago I found myself climbing the cement stairs of a converted industrial building in Brooklyn to attend an informal Friday night service in someone’s loft. A large group had gathered — 30 people at least, all in their 20s and 30s. We sang zemiros, ate vegetarian pasta salad and drank rye out of coffee mugs around a butcher-block table. One volunteer led a discussion of that week’s parsha, and we talked about the patriarch Abraham and what, in the 21st century, to make of his patriarchal ways. (Given the progressive tenor of the group, opinion was surprisingly split.) Irreligious as I am, it’s not the kind of thing I do often, but I had a nice time. The atmosphere was earnest without being oppressive, friendly but not proselytizing, warm but not saccharine.
As a journalist, it’s tempting to start analyzing a scene like this. Is it a trend? A movement? A radical overhaul of the institutional Judaism we once knew? (If it is any of those things, it’s certainly not new; the Havurah movement did this decades ago, and Hasidism centuries before that.) I’m content to let community professionals worry about such questions. For me it’s just one item in a spectacular array of religious, social and cultural activities happening with and without institutional support, above and below the radar, long-standing and brand new. Another week I might attend a neo-Hasidic speakeasy in Flatbush, hear new Jewish music in a synagogue basement or go see a film at a Jewish community center. In this case it was just a group of young adults who wanted to enjoy a Shabbos together, and that’s exactly what they did.
Unfortunately, the nuances of reality are inconvenient — not only to cultural journalists writing trend pieces, but also to documentary filmmakers looking for a movement to immortalize. That’s the case with “Punk Jews,” a film directed by NBC producer Jesse Zook Mann and co-produced by Evan Kleinman, also a TV professional, and by Saul Sudin, an independent filmmaker. The documentary, which premiered on December 11 at the JCC in Manhattan after several years of advance public relations, fundraising parties, preview articles and a successful Kickstarter campaign, examines a “Punk Jews movement” consisting of, according to the film’s narration, “people expressing Judaism in unconventional and awesome ways.” How unconventional or awesome they are is a matter of opinion. But as movements go, this one, frankly, is made up.
At different points in its production, “Punk Jews” was announced to be a full-length documentary and then a series of online shorts before emerging in the feature format. That’s a shame, because the subjects and structure of the film are better suited to shorts. In their quest to find anti-establishment Jews, the filmmakers profile Hasidic punk band Moshiach Oi!; a former Hasid from New Square trying to provide support for victims of sexual abuse; “Amazing Amy” Harlib, aka the Yoga Yenta; black, gay Jewish rapper Y-Love, and a group of Yiddish street performers called the Sukkos Mob. While many of these subjects are interesting separately, and a few might be worthy of full-length documentaries of their own, they don’t cohere as a single film.