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The most obviously out-of-place segment, which takes up about 15 minutes of a total 56-minute running time, focuses on Kal Holczler, a former Skver Hasid who claims to have been abused by a powerful member of the New Square community, and who started an organization to help other victims of sexual abuse. The subject is a deadly serious one, and it deserves a serious film. But what does it have to do with punk? Does one need to be a “punk” to be against sexual abuse? For “Punk Jews,” the term is so broad, it’s meaningless.
Indeed, the only literal “punks” in the film are Moshiach Oi!, a Breslov-identifying punk band. But the rebelliousness of punk music, more than 30 years after the death of Sid Vicious, is oversold. Moshiach Oi! may get their sound turned off if they disturb the neighbors, and they will never be hired for Chaim Berlin’s Hanukkah party, but yelling “Sh’ma Yisrael” at top volume smacks of ersatz rebellion, not of the real thing.
The one unifying element is supposedly Chulent, a weekly gathering of Hasidim, ex-Hasidim and assorted hangers-on that features food, music, lectures and a freewheeling atmosphere that has gotten them kicked out of more than one venue. It’s a fascinating scene, and the abundance of creativity coming from the fringes of the Hasidic world is a trend worth reporting on. But there’s more you can learn about Chulent from articles that have appeared in newspapers and magazines over the past few years than you can from “Punk Jews.” It doesn’t help that the filmmakers try to dress up their subject as a secretive underground scene whose “location is not advertised,” and one that is more on the fringes of the Jewish community than Neturei Karta. I guess they haven’t bothered to sign up for the listserv, or the Facebook group.
Indeed, the central idea of “Punk Jews” — that there is a singular countercultural Jewish movement afoot in New York — is fanciful at best. (If you really want an example of an anti-establishment group, try something like Jewish Voice for Peace, which the Anti-Defamation League lists in its “top 10 anti-Israel groups in America.”) Rather, the dozens of cultural strands present in the Jewish world constitute a much richer, more diverse, more interesting tapestry of culture and thought than could be woven together to represent a single trend. In most cases, people just create the experiences they want to have. And you know what? That’s enough. It may not be a movement, but it’s life.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @EzraG