Moshiach Oi! Merges Orthodox Judaism and Punk Rock

March 9th, 2013

Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times

Yishai Romanoff, left, singer, and Michael Wagner, guitarist, members of Moshiach Oi!, studying Jewish texts before a show. The drummer Pesach Alpert is in rear.

At age 6, he was a budding yeshiva student, in white shirt and black hat, with little contact outside the Orthodox Jewish world. At 16, he discovered some things he liked better, punk rock and drugs: marijuana, LSD, eventually crack and heroin. At 26, on the Thursday before the holiday of Purim last month, he was back among the faithful, sort of: side curls flailing, knees jackknifing up around his torso, leaping, crouching, shouting a Scriptural message from the Book of Ramones: “Avraham was a punk rocker.”

It was a little after midnight at the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center in Kensington, Brooklyn, and the crowd in a narrow, fluorescent-lighted side room watched Yishai Romanoff, now the singer for the band, Moshiach Oi!, in varying states of catharsis and confusion. As always at this weekly gathering, it was a mixed lot, at odd angles to Orthodox Judaism. Some in the audience were refugees, or “X-O’s”; others were formerly secular Jews wanting in.

A few slammed shoulders with one another and with Mr. Romanoff, thrilled to do in an Orthodox synagogue what they had done only in trashy rock locales. “My crew’s on fire for Hashem,” Mr. Romanoff shouted, using a Hebrew reference to God. The drummer, Pesach Alpert, a recent convert to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, kept up a train wreck behind him. “I pray to you, me and my minyan of men,” Mr. Romanoff sang.

The band and the weekly Thursday night gathering, known as Chulent, both appear in a new documentary film called “Punk Jews,” about fringe strands that have emerged within New York’s Orthodox community. The movie, which is scheduled for release on DVD this summer, examines loose bits of subculture inside what is often seen as an insular, rule-oriented cloister. To be a hard-core punk band chanting, “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman,” the song of global healing for an obscure branch of Hasidism, is to be something beyond a square peg in a round hole. It is to give up the idea of fitting in altogether. Even at Chulent their din divides.

Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times

Left, Evan Kleinman, the producer of “Punk Jews,” and Sammy Kovitz at a show.

“It’s very amusing to me to see the looks on people’s faces,” Mr. Romanoff said, wearing a long beard and a skullcap with the “Na Nach” phrase embroidered in Hebrew around the edge. “Most religious Jews have never seen anything like this, so they have no idea what’s going on.”

Yet he saw no contradiction between his music and his submission to his faith. “To me, Judaism is like punk rock,” he said. “Real Judaism is very in your face. The world is chasing after desires for money and sex and drugs and materialism, and Judaism is the opposite. Judaism is like, this world is nothing. This world is only to serve God and bring light and redemption. To me, that’s very punk rock.”

The New York area’s Orthodox Jewish population has swelled by more than 25 percent in the past decade, to almost half a million in 2011, according to a study by UJA-Federation of New York. One in three Jews in the area is now Orthodox, and more than half of Jewish children live in Orthodox homes.

With this growth have come signs of strain: modesty squads and mass stadium rallies to clamp down on perceived contamination from outside, but also revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up, and eruptions of the heterodox — some brought in by new converts, others arising from restlessness within

Evan Kleinman, the producer of “Punk Jews,” stumbled onto what he called “the unorthodox Orthodox” almost by accident. Mr. Kleinman, 30, who grew up in an observant home in Nyack, N.Y., was working as a producer at NBC with Jesse Zook Mann, and both were questioning what their faith meant to them. “As teens we both abandoned our Jewish identities, which we found rigid,” he said. “What filled that void was punk rock D.I.Y. culture.”

Saul Sudin

Evan Kleinman filming Y-Love, a Jewish hip-hop artist, in 2010.

On a tip from a friend, they attended a Thursday night gathering at the Millinery Center Synagogue in Manhattan’s garment district, hosted by a Brooklyn man named Isaac Schonfeld, 50. The get-togethers had begun in the 1990s at Mr. Schonfeld’s mail-order electronics shop, where people would hang out after business hours. Some were doubters; others divorced people who felt estranged in the family-oriented community.

His idea was to create a space with “a radical nonjudgmental approach,” he said. He called the movable gathering Chulent, for the traditional Sabbath stew that combines sundry ingredients in one pot. Some nights there were speakers, sometimes musicians. Always there was food and booze and schmoozing, with doors that stayed open until well into the morning — a combination that has led to their ouster from one host synagogue after another. Mr. Schonfeld, who is quiet by nature, relishes a little noise.

“It is part of the Chulent ethos to shake things up, because as we know, the way they are they’re not working for everyone,” he said. “So a little shake-up is really good.”

For the filmmakers, the gathering offered a way to be Jewish that was “something other than the mainstream version that we’d been fed,” Mr. Kleinman said. They met Orthodox black rappers, Yiddish preservationists, stoners, scholars, rebels, outcasts. The idea for “Punk Jews” came into focus, with Mr. Mann as the director.

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