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.
“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.”
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.
“There’s something about this moment,” Mr. Kleinman said. “But Jews have been involved in counterculture since the beginning of history. So there’s always an inherent element in Jewish culture, where you’re obligated to do what you think is right, even if the world is against you. That leads to counterculture. From Abbie Hoffman to Jerry Rubin, you often see that essence in Jewish culture.”
One regular at Chulent was Elke Reva Sudin, a painter who created an exhibition about the twin subcultures of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, “Hipsters and Hassids,” to help the two sides understand each other. Mr. Schonfeld gave the show its first home. To Chulent Ms. Sudin, 25, brought an upbringing in Lubavitch and then Modern Orthodox schools, where she went through Goth, punk and hippie phases. “For a while, whenever I’d run into someone and ask what they were doing, they’d say they were going to Chulent,” she said. Her husband, Saul, 29, became a co-producer of “Punk Jews.” Together the two started Jewish Art Now, a Web site that provides its own cultural remix.
Another regular, Miriam Leah Droz, who started a women-only arts organization for religious Jews, described Mr. Schonfeld’s refuge this way: “I knew of Chulent as a renegade place that has weirdos and you can go at one o’clock in the morning and it’s really cool. He is the counterculture of the Jewish community, and the culture does not like what he does. There’s always people calling and saying, get these people out of our synagogue.”
Even among this assemblage, Moshiach Oi! is an uneasy fit. Mr. Alpert, the drummer, became interested in his religion only after playing in a band that specialized in Hasidic weddings, at a time when the rest of his life was letting him down. “I was so turned on by the weddings, because the people had a real fire,” he said. “I always thought there was something very punk rock about Hasidism. They stood for something. They had a cause. I could care less about politics or animal rights. They stood for real life.”
Michael Wagner, 37, the guitar player, grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in Long Beach, N.Y., but lost faith as a teenager. Music became his religion, he said, “and that’s all I cared about.”
He played in the Afro-funk band Antibalas and a Latin ska band called King Changó, touring and recording, really making it as a musician. “And it got to the point that I felt so spiritually dissatisfied that I didn’t know what to do about that,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about going into Judaism as a source of spiritual nourishment.”
Through a friend he began reading the teachings of the Rebbe Shlomo Carlebach, “the singing Rabbi,” then returned to the family synagogue on Long Island, quitting music for a year. He would go to synagogue in the morning, then commute to his job as an executive assistant at a Manhattan law firm, then go home and study.
Once he started performing the Torah’s commandments, he said, there was no turning back: “It made total sense. The void that I felt totally disappeared.” He called his home Camp Shabbos and began to hold overnight gatherings on Fridays, observing the Sabbath and studying Scripture. One of the first guests, a singer who called himself Mr. Shabbos, persuaded Mr. Wagner to take up his guitar again. Together they formed a Celtic-flavored hard-rock band called White Shabbos and a countrified spinoff called the Mr. Shabbos Show.
“I always wanted to be in a Jewish punk band,” Mr. Wagner said. Then Mr. Romanoff showed up to study at Camp Shabbos. “As soon as Yishai came along, I was like, yes, we’re going to do this.”
Mr. Romanoff’s road to Moshiach Oi! was considerably bumpier. Raised by a secular Jewish father and an atheist mother who converted to Orthodox Judaism when he was very young, he attended a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in West Hempstead, N.Y., where he bridled at all the constrictions. “To me Judaism was just a bunch of annoying rules,” he said. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”
Instead he escaped to public high school and found fulfillment in punk rock, listening to bands like Leftover Crack and F-Minus, and traveling into Manhattan for shows at CBGB or ABC No Rio.
“Me and my friends were just nihilists,” he said. “Anytime from 16 to 19, I thought within the next month or two I’d be dead. I just didn’t really care. Life didn’t mean much to me.”
He smoked pot daily for about six years, he said, and became addicted to heroin.
Along the way, he made sponsored trips to Israel, first through Taglit-Birthright Israel, then through Young Judaea, a Zionist youth group. By the time of the second trip, he was mostly off drugs and curious. In Torah studies he found something that hit him as hard as punk rock.
“One day I hadn’t believed in God at all, and the next day it was like, boom, I had this intense spiritual awakening,” he said. “So O.K., I got to change a few things. Like, duh.” He ended his relationship of three years with a non-Jewish woman and came up with an idea for a band that combined his passions. “Punks scream oi, Jews scream oy,” he said. “In Yiddish it’s oy vey, oy this; in punk rock it’s oi, oi, oi. I saw it as a common ground for punks and Jews.”
Though there have been many Jewish punk rockers, and subgenres of punk are dedicated to overtly religious Christian, Islamic and Krishna-core messages, the band remains a scene of one.
Through their own label, Shabasa Records, they have put out two albums, but shows — whether at clubs or synagogues — are infrequent, and the musicians have other obligations. Mr. Alpert, the drummer, got married and moved to Brooklyn; the bass player, Mitchell Mordechai Harrison, moved to the Bronx and became a father. Even at Chulent the band has not always felt welcome.
“The first time we played there, we got kicked out,” Mr. Romanoff, now a soft-spoken father of two, said. “As open as Chulent was, and it is, they were not so open to Moshiach Oi!”
For women, expressiveness is even more circumscribed. Ms. Droz, a musical theater major who converted to Orthodoxy during college, gave up the stage for her faith. Doctrine prohibited a woman from singing in front of men, or dancing in a way that called attention to her body; performing on Fridays was out of the question.
But over time, Ms. Droz missed her old calling
“I started to realize, I’m hitting these brick walls,” she said. “I knew I can’t be a rabbi, I can’t be a cantor, I can’t be a singer. Where does that put me?
When a rabbi told her, flatly, “Theater is wrong,” she said, she was motivated to do something about it. In 2006, she formed the Arts and Torah Association for Religious Artists, by and for Orthodox women. She found a few takers, she said, but most women from Orthodox families had no connection with what she was doing, and no rabbi endorsed the group.
“We have girls who are singing, ‘I love Hashem,’ and it’s not accepted because it sounds too good,” she said. “It sounds too cool.”
Mr. Romanoff, for his part, said he would never listen to a female singer even on a recording, which some scholars say is allowed. “I choose to be more strict for myself because I know myself,” he said. “Even if I can’t see a woman singing, I know I’ll be thinking stuff.”
Sitting in a kosher cafe and sushi restaurant in Kensington, Ms. Droz cited a singer namedShaindel Antelis, who writes and sings breezy religious songs in a soft, folky style. Like the other women interviewed for this article, Ms. Droz wore a modest dress that came down to her calves and with sleeves covering her elbows.
But even Ms. Antelis has met with resistance, with stores initially refusing to sell her CDs, even though they were stamped “For Women Only,” lest they lead men into temptation.
“This poor girl gets bashed on her Facebook page,” Ms. Droz said. “It’s really hard.”
Ms. Antelis, 23, made light of her struggles, not wanting to sound critical.
“It was hard, but thank God my CDs now are in stores around the world,” she said at a Starbucks near Brooklyn College. “Maybe it’s on the bottom shelf or in the back of the store, but at least it’s there.” She added: “Miriam Leah has been a great mentor to me. Whenever someone says anything negative, she says don’t listen to them.”
Since Chulent started, other free spaces have followed, including a monthly Brooklyn supper club called the Hester, where the women-for-women rock band Bulletproof Stockings performed recently, and the Web sites neohasid.org and unpious.com, among others.
Mr. Schonfeld said he hoped the fissures heralded a coming stage of Orthodox Judaism, one engaged with technology, modern individualism and the outside world.
“In general, any type of backlash hasn’t stopped its progression,” he said. Isolationism has failed too many people, he said. “Not only do you keep the terror of outside influences out, but you keep the terror of your own in, and that’s a problem.”
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