Jewish Punks Unite

By Michael Croland

Published December 29, 2006, issue of December 29, 2006.
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To commence each show on the Eight Crazy Nights tour, a flame was colored in above the menorah drawn on a bass drum. The drum set was then shared by three Jewish-oriented punk bands that joined forces to celebrate Hanukkah in West Coast punk venues. The tour featured a magical world where Manischewitz wine flows like water, a limitless supply of bagels is available for noshing and throwing, and yarmulkes are worn just for fun.

“To actually get a punk tour aimed on a punk side rather than a Jewish side — but that actually has a Jewish thread… has never been done before,” said Bram Presser, the multipierced, multicolor-hair lead singer of Yidcore, a Melbourne, Australia-based band.

Jews have been prominently involved in the punk scene since it began in the 1970s, most notably members of the Ramones, the Dictators, and the Clash. But those punks never advertised that they were Jewish beyond a few limited references. The Eight Crazy Nights tour, organized by the Los Angeles chapter of the Workmen’s Circle, brought together Yidcore and Oakland, Calif.-based Jewdriver — two outwardly Jewish bands that for several years have dreamed of touring with each other — as well as New Orleans’s Zydepunks and the filmmakers behind the upcoming documentary “Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land.”

“The original punks probably would still be a bit turned off by the Hanukkah tour: Punk was supposed to be inclusive… not a division into separate ‘interest groups,’ so to speak,” said Steven Beeber, author of “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGBs: A Secret History of Jewish Punk.” Beeber thinks that while a handful of punk pioneers might be interested in such a tour today, they would have been much less likely to participate in their bands’ heyday.

Workmen’s Circle youth programmer Aaron Brickman disputes the notion that punk should be “homogenized.” “Punk is about expressing yourself — period,” he said. He contends that a lack of cultural awareness would translate to an exclusive, “all-white” punk scene. He feels strongly that musicians’ cultures and ethnicities should be celebrated, not concealed.

“Jewish punk” is interpreted in many different ways. “Jericho’s Echo,” excerpts of which were screened at the tour’s shows, documents Israel’s extremely secular punk scene. Israeli punks typically do not discuss their Jewish identity unless they’re criticizing the country’s observant Jews. Director Liz Nord said that Jewish punk — as a variety of punk music that plays up Jewish shtick — is absent from the spectrum of punk subgenres in Israel, calling it a “subsubsubsubgenre” overall. For the Zydepunks, playing Jewish music doesn’t even stem from being Jewish. Frontman Christian Kuffner described the Zydepunks as “the honorary gentile band from Louisiana.” The quintet combines fiddle, accordion, bass and drums to play a hybrid of punk rock and various folk stylings, including klezmer music sung in Yiddish. Bassist Paul Edmonds proudly wore a yarmulke on the second night of the tour, and Jewdriver quipped that he’d be Jewish by the end of Hanukkah.

Jewdriver and Yidcore are two of the few bands that carry the torch for music that is both very Jewish and very punk.

Jewdriver invited various guests onstage to light a menorah each night, including two inebriated and exuberated fans at Berkeley’s legendary 924 Gilman Street. On the tour’s opening night in San Francisco, three of Jewdriver’s four members wore yarmulkes, but vocalist — who goes by the name “Ian Stuartstein” — left his head unadorned. Jewdriver’s skinhead gimmick parodies the nationalistic, antisemitic outlook of skinhead bands like Skrewdriver.

For this tour, Jewdriver added to its repertoire a cover of Borat’s “In My Country There Is Problem,” which encourages listeners to “throw the Jew down the well.” On comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show,” the character of Borat performed the song at a Tucson, Ariz., bar and got the apparently antisemitic crowd to sing along. Stuartstein says that the Borat routine “hit the nail on the head” with regard to Jewdriver’s edgy take on satirizing and shining the spotlight on bigotry.

Yidcore took silly Jewish shtick to a new level. Three members of the band dress as though they’re in a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” while onstage, which isn’t too shocking considering that the band has released a hilarious, fully orchestrated punk album covering the show’s score. And while fans threw bagels provided by Jewdriver at multiple bands, Presser was alone in his desire to have a two-way food fight while performing.

“This is the old-fashioned hora, so dance like it’s your bar mitzvah,” Presser said before blowing a shofar and leading Yidcore through what is calls “Hora #5.” Three elated Jewish teens — ages 15 to 17 — joined hands, kicked their feet and circled around together in front of the stage. All three said it was their first time dancing the hora since they attended friends’ b’nai mitzvot several years earlier.

Yidcore tried to make the most of Hanukkah by playing its “Punk Rock Chanukah Song,” “Lonely Jew at Christmas” (from “South Park”) and a raucous take on “Maoz Tzur.”

The “subsubsubsubgenre” of Jewish punk probably isn’t the next big thing in the music world, despite the recent success of Celtic- and Gypsy-themed punk acts. Handfuls of Jewish fans felt a strong personal connection to the bands’ Jewish take on punk rock, and the tour’s musicians appeared to be enjoying Hanukkah more than ever; however, many show attendees came out primarily to see the bands that shared the bill with the three touring acts.

The Eight Crazy Nights tour will return next year, as long as this year’s venture doesn’t turn out to be a significant financial loss. As Presser noted, “Jewish punk is a commercial disaster, but it’s still fun.”

Michael Croland runs the blog

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