Last week I wrote about the new film “Punk Jews” and now that I have had the chance to see, I decided to write a full review of the film that I found to be compelling and totally interesting. “Punk Jews” profiles “Hassidic punk rockers, Yiddish street performers, African-American Jewish activists and more” and it explores a new and emerging “movement of provocateurs and committed Jews who are asking, each in his or her own way, what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century”.
Today we see Jewish artists, activists and musicians from many different and diverse backgrounds that express their views and feelings openly, defy what is the expected norm and use their Jewishness in unconventional ways. As they do this, the old stereotypes fall away and new doors open as old barriers collapse. Here we hear from “Yishai, lead singer of Moshiach Oi; Radical performance group, the Sukkos Mob; the renegade Orthodox participants of Cholent; the Amazing Amy Yoga Yenta; Kal Holczler, founder of Voices of Dignity; and African American Jewish hip hop sensation Y-Love”. Be prepared to meet the “New Jews on the Block” who do not conform to the ways that Jews are traditionally thought of.
It seems that we have been asking ourselves forever, “What is a Jew” and now we have to modify the question to “Who are Punk Jews, exactly?”
If we just look at that question and the way it is asked we get a sense of skepticism as well as interest. When I was growing up to be called a punk was insulting much like the word “queer”. Today these words take on new connotations.
The way we live today as people and as Jews is changing. It is important to be in touch with the younger members of the community and it is difficult to do so since we have been more transient and internationally involved. But just as we are looking for the young, they are looking for us and for Judaism but in alternative places. Here is a film that deal just with that issue—it “explores the unique and awesome ways in which our religion is being expressed in the 21st century. It grew out of the reoccurring question “Where do I belong?”” We all ask that question and we all deal with it—the film shows us that those activists, musicians and artists of all kinds also are looking for something better.
As Jews, we have always lived “outside the norm” but it seems that we believe that we do not. Many of our heroes in the Bible could be called “Punk Jews”. Certainly Abraham and Joseph lived outside of the expected norms of the time and Daniel lived with lions. Perhaps what we need is a better definition of the word “punk”. Punk certainly means living outside of the norm. Punks, by definition, are not afraid of being different because they are do more since they are different and they believe that what they do is right. As Jews, we repair the world with the doctrine of “tikkun olam” something that punks have always done.
In the film we see those who have dared to defy the stereotypes and in doing so are “redefining the constraints of what popular society has deemed a Jew should be. They scream to G-d from rooftops, go deep into Hasidic communities to combat child abuse, fight misconceptions of what Jews “look like” and perform politically tinged Yiddish theater on the streets of New York City”.
We are at a time in history when we have the wealth of the knowledge of the world at our fingertips yet we have not yet seen the potential of the world fulfilled—there is still so much to do. What we do see is something of resurgence in Judaism even though it can bring about marginalization.
The film is the work of a team of Emmy Award-winners, led by director Jesse Zook Mann. What follows next are not my words but there is no way I can say it better so I am quoting the entire review.
“It opens with Yishai Roman, the lead singer of the neo-punk band Moshiach Oi, on a rooftop in New York City, explaining, “Here’s how you bring light into the world.” He proceeds to unleash a volcanic eruption of a shriek, and the credits for the film flash, no less wildly, onto the screen. It’s a maniacally high-energy introduction but the film actually manages to sustain that level of intensity for much of its running time; it is fueled by the ADHD-style editing familiar to all of us from decades of music videos and commercials. A voice-over promises portraits of Jews “asserting their … identity, defying the norm and doing so at any cost.””
“A promise or a warning?”
“In fact, except for the hardcore sound of Moshiach Oi, the subjects of the profiles that follow are for the most part pretty mellow. Granted, after that band has flayed your senses during the film’s opening moments, a beating in an alley might be low-key. But the remaining segments, focusing on Jewish-African-Americans, Amy Harlib the “Yoga Yenta,” the wacky Yiddish street vaudeville of the Sukkos Mob and a somber but hopeful report on a whistleblower against child sexual abuse in an ultra-Orthodox community, are all fairly understated. But all the subjects of “Punk Jews” are profoundly engaging people with great stories to tell”.
“Kal Holczler, founder of Voices of Dignity, a support group for victims of childhood sexual abuse, is a remarkably calm, intelligent man on a mission. He has wisely focused his energies on helping victims and altering the landscape of the haredi world in the U.S. rather than on hunting down perpetrators in search of revenge. Amy Harlib is an astonishingly limber woman who has taken her contortionistic routines to Jewish audiences, provoking both laughter and renewed interest in the physical and mental health benefits of her discipline. The organizers of Cholent, a free-floating salon of Jewish alternative types, have marked off a safe space for Jews of all types to explore a wide range of cultural and intellectual realms”.
Perhaps the single best sequence in the film, a Shabbos visit with rapper Y-Love and his friend and fellow African-American Jew, Shais Rishon, who blogs as Ma Nishtana, gives a grounded, witty and uncondescending look at what it is like to be part of a multi-generational black Jewish community. It’s an episode that punctures myths while introducing us to a community that feels pretty familiar and comfortable, yet clearly has its own unique stance on the state of Jewish America”.
I have heard that some feel the film looks unfinished and the tone is uncertain. I see that as a good thing—Judaism has been around for 3000 plus years and is still unfinished. We do not want it to be finished because if that were so there would be no place for us.