The Common Good

'Punk Jews' Highlights Judaism's 'Myriad Flavors'

"Here's how you bring light into the world," says a scruffy-bearded man in shirtsleeves and a knit cap on a Brooklyn rooftop. "First, you get up in the morning and you scream!" His mischievous grin melts into something more ethereally content as he screams. At length.

He's had plenty of practice screaming — he does it for a living.

The man is Yishai Romanoff, lead singer of the hassidic punk band Moshiach Oi and one of the half-dozen artists, activists, and culture-makers profiled in the documentary Punk Jews.

The phrase can seem like an oxymoron: The essence of punk is to challenge inherited convention, yet adherence to rich traditions of convention is the common through-line of all of Judaism's myriad flavors.

The documentary, which just screened in Washington, D.C., this weekend, opens with the explanation that, "like many religions, Judaism struggles to bridge the gap between tradition and the modern world." The filmmakers, themselves each immersed in a different Jewish tradition, sought to find people who were resolving that tension well and give them a moment in the spotlight. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have a personal friendship with one of the producers.)

The subjects range from a Yiddish guerrilla theater troupe performing on the streets of New York to a sexual assault survivor introducing modern social service techniques to an insular religious community to a contortionist "of an advanced age" who calls herself "The Yoga Yenta." They aren't necessarily trying to redefine what their communities think it means to be Jewish — they are just trying to express their Judaism in ways that the people around them can relate to and understand.

Of course, every time the documentarians point out how groundbreaking or off-beat each subject is, they are also implying the existence of a community that is resisting their efforts. Anyone who has been told that it's sacrilegious to set an old hymn to a new tune or has been chastised for listening to Sufjan Stevens because it "isn't Christian music" can probably relate to Romanoff being told that his "punch in the face of godliness" was inappropriate for a Jewish audience. (It might be harder for most evangelicals to relate to Kal Holczer, whose activism led to him being chased out of his hometown by his religious community's internal police.)

But their commitment to the shalom (peace) and tikkun (healing) discussed in the Torah (Old Testament), and the satisfaction many of them take in finding new ways to express what that faith means to them, is infectious.

"It's the greatest joy in my life," said the Yoga Yente, beaming.

"I think, 'Why don't I feel that kind of joy?'" one audience member from my church confessed to me after the screening.

It's a fair question, and one that many evangelical viewers may end up wrestling with. A few of the subjects' personal stories even take the familiar shape and rhythm of evangelical conversion testimonies: One was raised in a strict religious home, rebelled, then came back to the faith through new friendships with people who cared about him. Another was living on the streets and addicted to drugs before realizing, "I was either going to die or my life was going to change."

But the common thread in all of their stories is that these artists and activists trust God, love God's people, and want to make God's name great with the tools and talents that God has given them. What could be more punk — or more authentically godly — than that?

Rick Barry is a communications strategist currently working with Grace DC. He occasionally blogs about faith and politics at Vision of the City and about communications and pop culture at The Rick Barry. He once cut a watermelon in half with his bare hand, but he doesn't like to brag.

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