Oy Oy Oy Gevalt: Punks Practice Judaism with Musical Rebellion

http://newvoices.org/2005/11/05/0163/

Back in the summer of 5755, four Jewish punk rockers in suburban Baltimore gathered together to play music under the name KOSHER. They screamed about Jewish foods—for example, “Farfel! Hamentashen!”—in true punk fashion. They kvetched through song: “I’m a lonesome Jewish cowboy on the range / All the shiksa cowgirls think I’m strange / I left my whole mishpoche in New York / I’m surrounded by cowboys eating pork.” KOSHER disbanded after their debut performance.

Alicia Jo Rabins, KOSHER’s fiddler and accordionist, recalled, “Playing in KOSHER was a way to say, ‘I have a lip ring and green hair, and I’m also gonna fast on Yom Kippur, and I’m not going to deny either of those things.'”

“I think KOSHER was part of something bigger than us,” she said. “Young American Jews experimenting with different ways the Jewish part of them and the American part of them could interact.”

Heebcore: An Overview

Ten years later, the dual Jewish-punk identity of bands like KOSHER has hit the big time. Golem, a neo-klezmer band for whom Rabins is the fiddler, won the Best Jewish Punk award at the first annual Jewish Music Awards in September. Golem’s singer has performed with several punk bands and the band members enjoy playing loudly and drinking cheap beer, but they don’t seem punk in the standard three-chord, against-the-establishment sense.

Listen to Golem’s sped-up version of the Yiddish classic “Odessa,” though, and it’s clear that the band is one of many Jewish acts today playing with an edge—call it what you will. At a time when punk diffused with ethnic music—ranging from Irish to Gypsy—is hot, that’s a big deal for Jewish kids looking to embrace their roots and rock out.

At the Jewish Music Awards, Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Hyman) was posthumously honored with the “Heeb Magazine” Lifetime Achievement Award. Ramone, who was the lead singer of the breakout pioneer punk act The Ramones, wasn’t exactly known for his Jewish roots. Perhaps the only Jewish-themed Ramones song was “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg),” in which he lambasted Ronald Reagan for laying a wreath at a German military cemetery where Nazi soldiers were buried.

Ramone’s achievement, however, was inspiring punks everywhere, Jewish and not. The Jewish punk challah-fame includes members of NOFX, Bad Religion, The Dictators, The Clash, Blondie, The New York Dolls, The Circle Jerks, and Black Flag. It seems that every legendary punk act but the Sex Pistols has had Jewish members, and even they had a Jewish manager.

Yidcore takes the honor of being the most distinctly Jewish of all punk bands. Their shtick is a bona fide, circumcised rampage of Jewish culture. After the quartet realized how popular punk covers of songs like “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” can be to their fellow disenfranchised yeshiva grads, they punked up Judaism wherever possible. Their versions of such liturgical classics as “Dayenu,” “Adon Olam,” and various horas will put a smile on the face of any remotely Jewish punk who learned those songs as a kid. The band recently spent two years recording a full-length, fully orchestrated rendition of the Fiddler on the Roof score.

The band has worked hard to be known for more than just covering the classics. Yidcore’s shtick includes blowing hummus out of a shofar at live shows, idolizing Natalie Portman, and showing off “yarmulbras” (i.e ., two yarmulkes worn as a brassiere). In June, they released “The Eighth Day Slice,” their first album of mostly original material. They have defined what it means to be both Jewish and punk in hilarious ditties such as “I Wanna Get To Know You In The Biblical Sense” and others that poke fun at Adam Sandler and Woody Allen.

“Lots of Jewish music is written from a perspective of struggle and overcoming adversity, which is exactly the background of punk,” said Yidcore frontman Bram Presser. “I’m actually surprised that punk hasn’t totally taken over Jewish music.”

Presser’s dream for Jewish music is already He-brewing in Israel. Haifa-based falafel-lovers Useless ID are Israel’s most famous punk export, having signed to U.S.-based Kung Fu Records and toured internationally many times. Filmmaker Liz Nord captured the vibrancy of the Israeli punk scene in her new documentary, Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land. Nord estimates that there are currently more than 40 punk bands in Israel.
“Historically, punk has grown out of political or social upheaval and this is also true of Israel,” she said. Jericho’s Echo features punk politics at its best, including a punk-rocker calling Ariel Sharon “an a**hole” and a band whose very name instructs people to slap the face of the Minister of Education.

And then there’s Steve “Gangsta Rabbi” Lieberman, a one-man band who plays a wide range of instruments, including flute, bass, and shofar. He regularly invokes Jewish themes in his songs and has released eight albums in the last three years—including “Punkifier,” “Jew in the Underground,” and “Jewish Riot Oy Oy Oy.” Lieberman is Shabbat-observant, has payot, and dons tefillin, but his distorted sound and emotional angst are undeniably punk.

Punks as Degenerates

Some punks are degenerate hoodlums. Or at least they want other people to think so.

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes are presumably the only punk band to ever release a live-album from a bar mitzvah, and the CD’s title shows the bands intent: “Ruin Jonny’s Bar Mitzvah.” Video footage on the enhanced CD shows bar mitzvah guests horrified by the yarmulke-clad group’s cacophony and lack of musicianship. The booklet insert recounts how the band refused to give autographs while eating, sucked a whipped cream can stolen from the ice cream bar, and wouldn’t play an encore set until additional payment was confirmed. For Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, it was all fun and games at the expense of poor Jonny.

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes bassist Fat Mike is better known as the frontman of NOFX, which also features Jewish guitarist Eric Melvin. The band has awkwardly “commemorated” the Holocaust in “Zyclone B Bathhouse” and “Re-gaining Unconsciousness,” and they crassly named an album White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean. Their 1994 classic “The Brews” is a fantasy anthem for Jewish punks everywhere:

Friday night, we’ll be drinking Manischewitz
Goin’ out to terrorize goyim
Stompin’ shaigitz, screwin’ shiksas
As long as we’re home by Saturday mornin’…
‘Cause hey, we’re the Brews
Sportin’ anti-swastika tattoos
Oy oy, we’re the Brews
The Fairfax ghetto boys, skinhead Hebrews

“It would be so funny to have actual tough Jewish skinheads with the payis [sidelocks]. So I wrote a song about it,” Fat Mike told The San Diego Jewish Journal last year. Except for the payis, the Brews are not just a figment of Fat Mike’s imagination. California-based Jewdriver allegedly attracts a scene of yarmulke-wearing Jewish skinheads to its shows, according to the band’s Web site. Jewdriver parodies the white-supremacist skinhead band Skrewdriver, and the band’s 2001 album, “Hail The Jew Dawn,” bizarrely features a Confederate flag laced with Jewish stars. At least in Jericho’s Echo, Retribution stands out as the only vehemently right-wing band in the Israeli scene, and their rough-and-tough, nationalistic “Israel State Hardcore” embodies a pseudo-skinhead style.

Regarding staunchly right-wing bands like Retribution, Nord told Punk Planet that some of their rhetoric imitates the rhetoric of other oppressive regimes that have oppressed their own people, the Jews.”

A Middle-Finger to Their Faith

Yarmulkes don’t fit on top of mohawks.

While it’s very Jewish to question one’s faith, it’s quintesse
ntially punk to stand up to organized religion. Some Jewish punk rockers have chosen to address their religious qualms head-on.

The legendary Bad Religion, which features Jewish guitarists Brett Gurewitz and Greg Hetson, makes opposing organized religion not just its namesake, but its raison d’etre. Their 1982 song “Faith in God” says it all: “There are people in the world today / Who say they’re Jewish, Christian, and such / They’re all ignorant fools… / It’s all right to have faith in God / But when you bend to their rules and the f*cking lies / That’s when I start to have pity on you.”

This struggling with Judaism is more poignant in Israel, where secular Jews resent being seen as non-Jewish if they aren’t Orthodox. In “Jericho’s Echo,” a group of religious Jews show up at a punk show because the brother of one of the men plays in the street-punk band Chaos Rabak. The siblings embrace despite their opposing societal niches, and the religious Jews even seem to feel welcome until Chaos Rabak starts snarling “Black Caps” (in Hebrew): “I am a Jew, deep within my soul / Living religion in my own way, strong in my beliefs / Who are you to tell me what to do? / What to
dress, how to live / Reading the Bible and wearing tefillin / That doesn’t make you so amazingly righteous!”

Perhaps Tel Aviv-based pop-punkers Not Kosher have found the perfect middle ground of being unobservant but proud Jews: “I’m a Jew, now I’m gonna do it my way / I’m a Jew, but I don’t go to shul on Saturday / Maybe I don’t do what God says / But I’m a Jew, I’m a motherf*cking Jew.”

Beyond the Music

Punk’s radical culture and do-it-yourself (DIY) aesthetic go beyond making music. NOFX’s Fat Mike and Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz run Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph Records, respectively, the two biggest independent record labels in punk rock. Inspired by the early 90s Jewish punk ‘zine “Mazal Tov Cocktail,” which was run by Jennifer Bleyer, a founding editor of Heeb Magazine’s, a Web site of the same name is currently in the works and aspires to be an online encyclopedia of Jewish radical culture. It’s a good fit, considering how Judaism has spawned such famous radical thinkers as Noam Chomsky, Emma Goldman, Abby Hoffman, and Peter Singer—all of whom can be pretty inspiring to against-the-grain Jewish punks.

The face of punk literature is shifting under our fingers. Blogs seem to be overtaking the ‘zines of yesteryear. Eleven students at Hunter College allegedly “sport ideological mohawks” and contribute to the “Punks of Zion” blog. “We are the X Games and [traditional Jewish practices] are the Olympics,” said blogger Dina “Punk of Rock” Pirutinsky. The blog covers the full gamut of Jewish life at Hunter, ranging from Scrabble games at Hillel to Orthodox sex roles.

Abram Shalom Himelstein and Jamie Schweser run the DIY independent publishing company New Mouth from the Dirty South. Himelstein is not surprised by the success of DIY-style businesses among Jews. “Jews run the media—didn’t you get the note?” he quipped.

Himelstein and Schweser co-wrote Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing, a bible for what it means to be a Jewish punk, which has sold about 25,000 copies. It follows the life of “Elliot the Bar-Mitzvahed,” a Jewish punk who starts his own ‘zine and throws hamentashen at people. Elliot sums up what it means to be both Jewish and punk:

“There’s this part of Judaism that goes like this: God created the world imperfect, with flaws, and then created humans to straighten out the problems. It’s called Tikkun Olam, which means ‘Fixing the World.’ There are a lot of things about my religion that have been difficult to understand and follow, but the idea that this world is messed up seems pretty true, and I accept that it’s all of our of [sic] jobs to make the world better.”

Whether they are KOSHER or Not Kosher, Jewish punks can proudly display their dual identities without sacrificing either aspect. After all, there’s nothing more punk than tikkun olam, screaming “Dayenu,” or ruining a bar mitzvah.

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