Abraham was the first punk Jew. Really.
At least that’s what Evan Kleinman claims. While punk and Jewish may sound like a parent’s worst nightmare, according to film producer Kleinman, punk is more — far more — than mohawks, safety-pin ear piercings, mosh pits and thrashing and head banging music.
“That is very much a stereotype,” Kleinman says. “Punk is much more than a fashion statement … or a style of music. It’s about standing up for what you believe in. It’s about people’s rights. It’s about economic equality. It’s about unity. It’s about freedom, people being able to express themselves freely and be accepted.
It’s about doing something without help, doing something outside of the mainstream and not having the help or support of mainstream resources.” Along with Saul Sudin, Kleinman is a producer on the one-hour documentary Punk Jews, which unpacks the meaning of the punk aesthetic and draws parallels to Judaism. The film screens June 22 at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue and Kleinman will be on hand afterward, joined by Sudin, to answer any questions the audience may have.
The film features one fervid punk chasid, Yishai Romanoff of Moshiach Oi, who screams out lyrics like the Hebrew “baruch Hashem” or “blessed is the name [of God]” with animalistic fervor. He calls his music a “punch in the face of Godliness.” Kleinman and his partners, Sudin and the film’s director Jesse Zook Mann, became fascinated with this subculture of mostly young Jews in the New York area who do not conform to mainstream ideas of Judaism and community. There’s Kal Holczlar, a former New Square chasid who is battling the silence and repression of sexual abuse in his community.
And Amy Harlib, who calls herself the yoga yenta. She’s been doing a contortionist act for years to Yiddish music and klezmer accordion. Shais Rison, who blogs at MaNishtana.net, is an Orthodox African American Jew, who longs for the day when he will no longer be an anomaly in the Jewish community, noting that “being Jewish has nothing to do with skin color.”
Kleinman said he was inspired by these and other young “punk Jews,” as he calls them: those who challenge traditional Jewish identity and Jewish stereotypes. A native of Nyack, N.Y., who grew up straddling the lines between Conservative and Orthodox, Kleinman is the grandson of Holocaust survivors, which he says made quite an impact on him.
As a teenager, after attending a Jewish day school through sixth grade, he discovered punk music and the DIY, or do it yourself, punk counterculture. “I realized that a lot of those people I looked up to in the punk rock scene were actually Jewish, too,” he says. He was a singer, songwriter and guitarist in a band called Three Monkeys Named Bob.
“Whether it was conscious or subconscious,” he says, “I saw certain values definitely kicked into it that were familiar growing up and were also reinforced through playing in a punk rock bands, setting up shows and doing things that would bring people together under one roof in a friendly, positive environment.” The idea for a movie evolved organically.
Introduced to the alternative movable Jewish gathering that calls itself Cholent, Kleinman began to meet a number of Jews who were creating alternative ways of expressing their Judaism. “Saul, Jessie and I, we were just exploring our own Jewish identities,” he says, when the idea to make a film came up.
He learned in exploring alternative Judaisms that the true essence of punk goes well beyond the music subculture. “All the other characters [in the film] embody activism, performance art, street theater and they all have in common that they’re standing up for what they believe in and they’re all doing it within a Jewish context,” Kleinman says.
And as for that first punk Jew, Abraham, Kleinman says: “Judaism was born out of an act of defiance: Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s story. Monotheism was a very new and radical idea: the oneness of the world and how everything was connected and it was threatening to the power structure of the day.
The story says, when they walked in and saw all the idols smashed, Abraham said, ‘Oh, the big one did it.’ That’s the first act of punk. He was the first Jew. He was the first punk. He was the first punk Jew.” And by the way, Smashing Idols would make a great name for a punk band.
Punk Jews screens June 22 at 7 p.m., Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District. Tickets $10 (advance), $12 (at the door). Call 877-987-6487, visit Sixth & I’s box office Monday-Friday noon-3 p.m. or go online at sixthandi.org/event/punk-jews/