Punk Jews scream out to God ‘from the depths’
'Rabbi Nachman's whole approach is very punk rock'

Punk Jews scream out to God ‘from the depths’

Since the 1980s, an iconoclastic subculture has existed on New York’s Lower East Side in parallel with the gritty rock scene — but this one has a higher spiritual calling

Moshiach Oi, a Jewish punk band. (YouTube screenshot)
Moshiach Oi, a Jewish punk band. (YouTube screenshot)

NEW YORK — Late on a frigid Thursday night in November was the last time Moshiach Oi played a show in Manhattan.

The Jewish punk band brought to life the old, decrepit Millinery shul in the shadows of Times Square, flashing strobe lights through the chapel and screaming Breslover lyrics to a motley audience of hipsters, hippies, and Hasidim stoned and stunned by the spectacle. There was dancing at the foot of the dais, idling betwixt the pews, scooping of cholent into styrofoam bowls, and cigarettes (and joints) lit by the doorway.

Lead singer Yishai Romanoff hollered into the mic, his perfectly curled payos swaying beneath a white yarmulke embroidered with Hebrew letters spelling out “Na, Nach, Nachma, Nachman MeUman,” (an incrementally written phrase, which, when complete, reads “Nachman from Uman.”)

The line represents “a call for redemption,” says Romanoff. The idea is, the more you repeat the phrase, the faster the Messiah will come.

The band’s guitars and drum kit were adorned with Na Nach stickers, too, and in the chapel’s back corner an old man peddled Breslov literature.

No surprise, Na Nach culture is Moshiach Oi’s raison d’être. As Romanoff puts it, the 18th century Rebbe Nachman, founder of the Breslov Hasidic sect — which includes the Na Nach subsect — was about as punk as you can get.

Moshiach Oi isn’t the only Jewish punk band out there, but they’re indicative of a tiny niche comprised of about two dozen bands that have cropped up since the 1980s.

“For the most part, these bands have been about Judaism or Jewishness from a cultural perspective, throwing gefilte fish at the crowd or singing punk rock versions of Hanukkah songs,” says Michael Croland, author of “Oy, Oy, Oy Gevalt!: Jews and Punk.”

“But where Moshiach Oi are unique is that for them Judaism is not a joke. It’s something they take very seriously and their religious messages that they espouse are genuine,” he says.

For Moshiach Oi, that message comes straight from Rebbe Nachman.

“Whereas other rebbes cared about people coming, giving kavod [honor] and money, that has nothing to do with serving God or fixing the world. Nachman just cared about the truth. His whole approach is very punk rock, boom straight to the point, no BS,” explains Romanoff.

His bland Modern Orthodox upbringing on Long Island had turned him into an atheist until the band’s guitarist, Mike Wagner, introduced him to Breslov.

“Punk rock isn’t just about the music, but about what we’re saying,” Romanoff adds. “It’s very passionate, and delivers a powerful message.”

Moshiach Oi, a Jewish punk band. (Courtesy)

For Moshiach Oi, that message is Na Nach — a phrase popularized by Breslover Hasidim who believe in the debated story that 20th century Rabbi Yisroel Dov Ber Odesser, a.k.a “Saba,” received a note from Nachman signed with the kabbalistic formula.

The nine-year-old band’s latest album, “Rock Rabeinu,” is comprised entirely of songs based on Rebbe Nachman’s teachings. They released the album this summer and promoted it through a few performances in Brooklyn and Long Island.

Jewish punk band The Shondes. (Courtesy)

Among the ranks of Jewish punk include other outfits such as The Shondes (Yiddish for “disgrace”; a New York-based radical, political, feminist, queer, indie/punk band), Gefilte Fuck (a “Yidcore” band from Los Angeles), The Groggers (a New York-based pop punk band named for the Purim noisemaker), and Asher Yatzar (a Chicago-based punk band whose namesake is the prayer for after one uses the toilet).

But as Croland notes in his book, most Jewish punks would resist being stereotyped or lumped together; they’d rather be known for how they “do Jewish” in their own way.

Jewish punk band Asher Yatzar graphic. Written in Yiddish on the bottom is ‘Judaism, pop punk.’ (Courtesy)

That said, Jewish punk has a few of its own hallmarks.

“Both Jews and punks have histories of being outsiders. When these two identities converge, Jewish punks relate to the outsider identity from both,” Croland says.

There’s also something about the prevalence of both Jewish culture and punk rock in New York, he adds. Near the Lower East Side, once home to hordes of European Jewish immigrants, Hillel “Hilly” Kristal opened the iconic punk rock nightclub CBGB at 315 Bowery in 1973.

“CBGB in the 70s and everything since makes it a very special place to create art from both a Jewish perspective and a punk perspective,” Croland says.

According to Steven Lee Beeber, author of “The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk,” punk rock itself “was the apotheosis of a Jewish cultural tradition that found its ultimate expression in the generation born after the Holocaust.”

Today, Jewish punks have maintained an element of that original hardcore toughness, central to punk rock’s genesis. They’re not “weak, obedient mamas’ boys,” says Croland, but unique and in your face.

“They’re living their own Judaism in their own way, not necessarily wanting a rabbi or community telling them this is the way it has to be done. DIY [do-it-yourself] is at times synonymous with punk rock,” he says.

Whether it’s booking your own shows or printing your own t-shirts, punk is about individuality in the artistic process. It upholds a stance against the mainstream, the establishment, or “the man.”

“Back in my day, we were all about punk as an ethos and not a genre,” says Louisa Solomon, lead singer of The Shondes. “We have a punk spirit — high energy, radical politics, a desire to engage with the audiences and break down the boundaries between performers and show-goers. Mostly, I just hope we move people.”

The band’s lyrics contain a fair number of Jewish references, such as in the song “Unstill Ones,” which mentions the “Song of Songs,” a scroll from the Bible that celebrates sexual love.

For Asher Yatzar, the Jewish punk connection was a side effect of the band’s greater goal, explains drummer/singer Dave Fried, to sing their favorite genre (pop-punk) in their favorite language (Yiddish).

“I want Yiddish to be an everyday language for everyday Jews,” says Fried. “Some people connect Yiddish language with political rebellion, anarchism, and left politics, which has always been part of Jewish history, but I don’t want to say something like speaking Yiddish is a radical act.”

The band sings about Yiddishkeit and cultural nuances through the lens of the language. The song “Genitungen” (Yiddish for “exercise”) is about the Jewish notion that for optimal health, one needs to exercise their mind, body, and soul through scholarship, physical activity, and prayer and mitzvot.

Yishai and Jesse Zook Mann in 2010. (Courtesy)

For many of these bands, punk is only the vehicle by which they express their mission. In Moshiach Oi’s case, that mission is tikun olam — or fixing the world — by spreading the word of Rebbe Nachman.

“Many people said that his message was so far ahead of his time,” says Mike Wagner, who believes, along with Romanoff, that Nachman’s teachings contain everything necessary to healing ourselves and the world.

Contrary to the tough, radical, hardcore character of punk, the goal for many bands is often pure: to express an ideal, be it vegetarianism, anarchism, or Judaism, that they see as necessary to individual or collective improvement.

“The only way to fix the world is through individual people one by one fixing themselves,” Romanoff explains.

Nachman was really into hitbodedut, or finding a place (often in nature) to be alone with God. The rogue, individual nature of Nachman’s teachings fit well into punk mentality, Romanoff says.

“Rebbe Nachman said that it doesn’t matter how bad a person has gone, there’s no despair. You can always turn yourself back around. He wanted Hasidim who were fried, burnt out, people who didn’t have any hope,” says Romanoff.

“These were the people who would get the message more than anybody.  God’s light is hidden in the lowest places,” he says.

Even in a defunct midtown shul, with rats and water damage, peeling paint and chipped wood — all nonetheless brought to life by the screeching prayer of Hasidic misfits.

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