What does it mean to be on the fringe of a group that’s already on the fringe? How can you express your Jewish identity when you don’t fit into the mainstream pre-packaged image of what it means to be Jewish? Diverging from mainstream Judaism does not make you less Jewish, but it can often make you feel like you can’t be Jewish and live your truth at the same time. So, how can you live your faith if the road you walk hasn’t been walked before? “Punk Jews” helped me find the answers.
Jesse Zook Mann’s 2012 documentary “Punk Jews” featured varieties of Jewish musicians, artists and activists who’ve forged their own path. And watching it changed my life.
I was 15 years old, living in Norwich (a small city in the U.K.) and full of teenage angst, testosterone and anxiety. I’d been bar mitzvahed and enjoyed my Jewish education, but now I was listening to The Smiths and fighting with my parents. It was the perfect age to reject being Jewish and blend in with the crowd.
One day, a friend sent me a YouTube link to this documentary called “Punk Jews,” and I only watched it because the title sounded cool — I wasn’t expecting it to have the effect on me that it did. It showed heavy metal bands, hip hop artists, poets and actors all expressing Judaism in their own way. Every Thursday they gathered together for underground “cholent parties” that were so wild they kept having to move location.
“Punk Jews” opened my eyes to the fact that being Jewish was something that would follow me around for my entire life, no matter what I wore, what music I listened to and who I hung out with. In fact, being Jewish could go together with my teenage angst and discovering the big wide world. The concept of Punk Judaism became a lifeline to my Jewish identity; I could be the person I wanted to be and keep my faith integral to my identity. I self-declared myself a Punk Jew, proudly displaying it on my Instagram bio, and this started my journey of understanding my own Jewish identity.
To be punk means subverting mainstream culture. To be Jewish means, well, whatever you want it to mean. So, here is how to be a Punk Jew:
Define religious observance on your own terms
To be a Punk Jew, you must release yourself from the idea that observing 613 mitzvot is the only way to be religious. Being religious is about connecting yourself to your faith — it’s thinking about and grappling with Judaism on your own terms. You and only you get to define how you are religious. You don’t need to wear a yarmulke, keep kosher or observe Shabbat. Instead, recognize your agency and own it. Reject the idea that there is only one way to be religious; this will lead to a more inclusive form of Judaism. The punk movement is all about “doing it yourself,” and to be a Punk Jew you must throw everything you thought you knew about what religious observance means and construct your own religious identity.
Everything is political
The wider punk movement is about tackling the hegemony of mainstream culture and dismantling the oppression it maintains. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof,” or “justice, justice you shall pursue” is a core Jewish value from the Torah. Punk Judaism, therefore, is the natural intersection of these two ideas. As Jews, as Punk Jews, we must be active participants in making the world a better place. There are countless examples in Jewish scripture and history of how activism and religion intersect — just look at the Jewish involvement in the Texas abortion ban or the Jewish socialist and anarchist movements of the 20th century. There have been Jews pursuing justice since Moses commanded it. To be a Punk Jew you must engage with the issues of today, educate yourself about the structural inequalities in the world, and act in a meaningful way.
Find what makes you Jewish
A key tenet of punk ideology is authenticity. As a subculture, punkness exists in opposition to mainstream culture and involves constructing an identity unique to yourself. Being punk is a radical form of self-expression, and you must find what it is you need to express. To be a Punk Jew, you need to connect with where your Jewishness lies within you. Living in the Jewish diaspora, Jewish history and culture is fragmented a thousand times over. There is so much to connect with — you must find what works for you.
For me, finding what Jewishness meant to me emerged through music. I’m a composer, but my musical upbringing was not particularly Jewish. Yet, when I started to read about the Jewishness of some avant-garde composers of the 20th century, I saw how Jews have been at the forefront of radical and ground-breaking culture. I began to see my faith as a mechanism for the radical expression their music displays, and I found what connected me to my Judaism.
Embrace the alt
Religious study is one of the most important aspects of Judaism. There is a huge culture of learning for learning’s sake, and this is something important to incorporate into Punk Jewish practice. Engage with alternative readings and interpretations of Jewish texts — like queer readings of Ruth and Naomi, or an interpretation of Jonah and the Whale considering mental health. After all, Judaism is full of debate and argument, and we should welcome new and fresh interpretations of religious texts.
To paraphrase Kurt Cobain, punkness is freedom. It’s about liking and accepting anything that you like, as long as it’s good and it has passion. Live by this, and you’ll be a Punk Jew.