A common question from everyone I talk to these days is, "Who are Punk Jews, exactly?" The tone of the question varies from skepticism to intense interest. "When I was a kid, you didn't want to be called a punk; punks were up to no good," one person in their 70s told me. But to younger generations, the title seems to strike an intensely positive chord.
Today, the communal lifestyles of Jews are evolving and changing unlike anything in the last several centuries. Many synagogues and community centers are scrambling to figure out how to connect to a younger generation that is more transient and globally minded than ever before. But just as the established organizations grasp for an audience, the younger generations are searching for Judaism in alternative places. "Punk Jews" is a documentary film that 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?" that director Jesse Zook Mann, producer Evan Kleinman and I each have grappled with for years. What we found were activists, musicians and artists of all kinds who are similarly seeking out something greater than themselves.
To me, "Punk Jews" is a repetitious title. Though we may have been lulled into some sense of satisfaction otherwise, truthfully to be Jewish is to live outside the norm. Part of this is historical ostracization, but a significant piece of it is in our DNA. Our patriarch Abraham was an idol smasher. He was a leader who had to leave his father's house and pave his own path to holiness through severe trials and tribulations including the potential sacrifice of his offspring. But instead of his son Isaac's life ending on that mountain, a ram was brought instead. Abraham took that ram's horn and fashioned a shofar, the horn Jews still use to this day for announcing the new year, and he blew it in what I imagine was a passionate, all encompassing blast of emotion that encapsulated all that he had experienced to reach that point. Abraham wasn't only the first Jew, he was the first Punk Jew.
The common misconception is that Punk is simply music that is two minutes of screaming and thrashing. In reality, Punk is an ethos of standing up for what you see can be bettered in society. It is about not fearing being different because you believe so strongly that what you do is right. In Judaism, we call that Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. In each of the segments that make up our film, we feature significant individuals who are defying stereotypes and 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.
It is no coincidence that the film is having its world premiere tomorrow (Dec. 11), during the holiday of Hanukkah. Though we get caught up in dreidel spinning, gift giving and latke eating, it is important to remember that above all Hanukkah is a time of revolution. We are rebelling against the darkest point of the winter by producing more light with our eight candles, which we use to commemorate the lone jug of pure oil that was miraculously found and burned for eight nights in the lamps of the holy temple's menorah. The temple in Jerusalem had been defiled by Hellenists, who tried, as many have before and after them, to eliminate the Jewish people through dominance and assimilation. The rededication of the temple was a punk act; we were fighting for our homes, our lifestyle and our beliefs.
Too much calm breeds lethargy. We must remember that our world is still far from fulfilling its potential and we must work to continually better it. "Punk Jews" only exists because a resurgence of pride in one's Judaism is taking hold among many despite the perceived marginalization of one's beliefs. "Shtick," as they like to say in Yiddish, is falling by the wayside to make way for more authentic approaches to meaning.
"Who are the Punk Jews?" We all are. And we won't give up.
Click through for the trailer and stills from "Punk Jews":