I Think I've Been Sedated

Is There a 'Punk Jews' Movement? Not Really

Courtesy Punk Jews

By Ezra Glinter

Published December 17, 2012, issue of December 21, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.