Segment 10 – Jewish Punk

This stuff is a little bit scary. Hear me scream:

I’m really sorry if I offended anyone today. I felt like I was juggling grenades! Songs we played: ‘Don’t Jew Me‘ by Jewdriver, and ‘They Tried to Kill Us. They Failed. Let’s Eat!‘ by Yidcore.

Steven Lee Beeber is the author of the book ‘The Heebie-Jeebies of the CBGB’s‘, which revealed the over-representation of Jews in the first wave of New York punk in the 1970s. Members of the Ramones, Suicide, Blondie and many others came from Jewish households. Beeber goes on to make a series of claims about the links here. He says that punk was an attempt of these young Jewish men to overturn the stereotype of the feeble, brainy Jew. According to Beeber, these early Jewish punks looked upon the Holocaust as a moment of weakness; posing with swastikas and ‘ironically’ embracing Nazi imagery was a way to shock their opponents and prove their strength. More generally, Beeber sees a similarity between the punk and Jewish communities in their simultaneous desire to be separate from mainstream culture, and to fit in. He writes, “Punk reflects the whole Jewish history of oppression and uncertainty, flight and wandering, belonging and not belonging … being both in and out.”

Contemporary Jewish punk outfits continue in this shock-and-awe, taboo-breaking, line-crossing lineage. The band Jewdriver reflects and parodies the neo-Nazi group Screwdriver. They frequently make references that many would think of as going too far. On their website they list a fake song of theirs titled, ‘I was killed in a gas chamber, so give me $100000!’ Yidcore, from Melbourne, push a very triumphalist, anti-Nazi image. Check out the video clip of the song we played, in which Nazi pigs keep Jewish chickens in cages, until a fighting rooster appears to save the day; among other things, he knocks the Hitler pig into a sausage-making machine. With a kind of macabre humour, one of the sausages that shoots out has his characteristic black moustache on it.

It’s not all anti-Nazi, of course. Both of these bands, along with a group of Gentiles who play folk-punk fusion (including some Yiddish lyrics) named the Zydepunks, played in a 2006 tour named Eight Crazy Nights. They played eight gigs on the eight nights before Hanukkah, and incorporated elements of Jewish ritual into their gigs – many band members wore yarmulkes (skullcaps) and they ‘lit’ a menorah candle each night, which is traditionally done in Jewish households in the lead-up to Hanukkah. Yidcore have also released punk covers of all of the songs from Fiddler on the Roof, a classic Jewish musical.

The Groggers are a New York-based pop-punk group who explicitly draw on their common Jewish heritage. They try to write music “for both audiences.” A song about failing to find a girl is named ‘The Shidduch Hits the Fan‘ – a pun on the practice among Orthodox Jewish communities named shidduch, whereby young Jews are introduced in a kind of arranged dating. The combination of Jewish and secular concerns in their music led critic Heshy Fried to positively say that he forgot he was listening to Jewish music: “****, even Matisyahu can’t go a few lines without throwing in some Biblical verse,” he wrote.

Right, so that’s Jewish punk. Next we return to safer waters, with Christian J-Pop. Peace!

Occupy Religion

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Images: 1, Occupy Catholics by Mary Valle; 2, Jesus as OWS protestor; 3, the Fiddler on the Roof on the Wall Street bull; 4, Interfaith Tent at Occupy Oakland; 5, Occupy Judaism; 6, Protest Chaplains

Occupy may seem a little passé – having been evicted from most of their protest sites, Occupy now exists primarily in exile, or in the diaspora – but it remains a fascinating subject. Various religions crossed paths with Occupy, and in various ways:

Religion in Occupy

A number of religious groups and faith traditions were present at the protests themselves. A group of liberal Christians called the Protest Chaplains played a role in the Boston and New York camps. They stated firmly that they were not there to proselytise – only to express solidarity and provide support. Their presence was largely symbolic, tying the concerns of Occupy to something far greater. In Boston they had a multi-faith chapel, where people came for Bible study groups, services, reiki, yoga, or quiet meditation. Crosses mingled with Tibetan coloured flags on the cacophonous front wall of this small blue tent. Muslim groups also held ‘prayer rallies’ on Wall Street, as well as joining in the demonstrations. At this protest we hear call and response chants of “Tell me what democracy looks like – this is what democracy looks like” blending smoothly with “takbir – allahu akbar.” At Occupy Oakland, they had an Interfaith Tent that preached nonviolence, compassion and justice; in the words of the Director of the Seminary of the Street, it aimed to “provide a critical spiritual presence that honored and welcomed all religious traditions and people who were non-religious.” Furthermore, the Tent continues to exist metaphorically – they held an interfaith conference a couple of months ago. On a more abstract level, Occupy itself could be construed as religious – through ritualised protest practices, a collective vision for a better world, a passionate social ethic, and a sense of transcendence generated through collective, emotionally-intense experience.

Religion and Occupy

Nathan Schneider has argued that Occupy needs religion – “the more organised the better” – if it is to truly transform society. Religious institutions have indeed often interacted with the Occupy movement. We all remember the Vatican releasing its call for major global economic reform, which came out last October. It was not ostensibly a reaction to Occupy, but clearly dealt with the same issues, calling for a focus on the common good and ending economic inequalities. Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury (the highest post, after the Queen, in the Church of England), followed the Vatican’s lead with a similar call for a reinvigoration of common values and ethical behaviour in the context of global, selfish capitalism. The situation of the Occupy London protests in front of St Paul’s Cathedral is brimming with symbolism. Obviously a ‘religion’ does not exist as some kind of abstract entity with a unitary opinion. People of all faiths can be found arguing fervently on both sides. While some might argue that Jesus would be there with the protestors in Zuccotti Park fighting corporate greed, others argued that he would be there to save them from their folly.

Occupy Religion

Finally, there have been moves to take the Occupy ethos and practice to religion itself, calling for the reform of religious institutions and dogmas to refocus on the ‘99%’ – the average person of faith for whom the elite structures may seem to serve little purpose. Jewish rituals held at Zuccotti Park gave rise to Occupy Judaism. There are a bunch of Facebook groups out there too, such as Occupy Religion, which has as its byline, “Religion for the rest of us.” The Occupy Church is an ecumenical Christian movement that demonstrates how a shared purpose – in this case, against excessive corporate power – can bring together people from a variety of religious denominations, thus facilitating change within the religion as well.

In the end, religions simply provide symbolic resources that individuals may draw on. Re-telling religious stories (such as Jesus overturning the tables), seeing religious garb, crosses and other symbols (such as the Jewish Fiddler on the Roof on the Wall Street bull), or performing rituals in a new context (such as the Muslim prayer rallies), are all ways to sacralise the cause. In the process both entities are transformed: the religious symbolism is reconfigured, and the cause is deepened and given transcendent meaning and affirmation. Whether this is seen as appropriation or application is irrelevant. Humans require meaning to function in their daily lives, and the use of symbols is fundamental to this. Religions have been symbolic resources for centuries, and the process of reconfiguration and alteration will never cease.

Welcome and Segment 1 – Jewish Reggae

Welcome to the Rad Religion blog, created to accompany the segment of the same name broadcast weekly on Thursday mornings on 2SER 107.3! The segment explores cool combinations of religions and music genres in an interesting and fun way. This morning Steph Liong of the Thursday Daily show introduced me (Cale Hubble) and we chatted about Matisyahu, an (ex-)Orthodox Jew who sings a fusion of reggae, rock and hip-hop.

The audio is here! 

Matisyahu used to wear the full outfit – long black coat, white shirt, black hat – bouncing around in his video clips, waving his hands like a rapper. These days he dresses in ‘street wear’ but his Judaism is still central to his music. Matisyahu – the name is Hebrew for his birth name, Matthew – is a member of the Orthodox sect named Chabad. The joke goes that Chabad is the religion closest to Judaism, because it sticks to all the tenets and rules but also emphasises emotion and the lived experience of faith. It’s an Orthodox sect, which means you’re only a Jew if your mother was, no intermarriage, only males to be rabbis, you wear a beard, a discomfort with modernity and so on. But Chabad was founded with an aim to proselytise, and not to anyone – just to other Jews. It is an attempt to speak to the reformed Jews, who have adapted Judaism to modernity and our changing moralities, or worse to the secular Jews, and to try and bring them back to observant, Orthodox practice.

But Matisyahu lives more or less a rock star lifestyle, with gigs and groupies and all the rest, he’s even had a song featuring Akon – isn’t that incongruous with his faith? He doesn’t think so: he still upholds all the traditions, and draws on Judaism when he writes his lyrics. He himself has said that “Chasidism [a type of Orthodoxy] teaches that music is ‘the quill of the soul'”, expressing things that words alone cannot. He prays and meditates before his performances, although after that he listens to Jay-Z and drinks wine. In his own words, “I’ve always had these two sides of myself … My music is about bringing them together.” A recent tweet saying, “Mazel Tov my bro,” also showcases this juxtaposition.

Now there was some news back in December that rocked the hip-Jewish world. Matisyahu shaved his beard. There’s a lot of talk about what it means, and he’s now growing it back, but the words from his Twitter feed at the time suggest that he has gone ‘beyond’ Orthodoxy: after a difficult and wayward adolescence, “I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules – lots of them – or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”

On the segment this morning I spoke a lot about Matisyahu’s video clips, especially the one for ‘Jerusalem’, in which people build the Wailing Wall out of glowing pictures of family and friends. I suggested that these are people to be remembered, and that by making this holy wall out of faces, Matisyahu is making a comment about that uniquely powerful Jewish concern with memory. It clearly ties into the events of the 20th Century too, and the oft-repeated refrain ‘Never Again’ is not far from your mind when you watch the video. If you’re intrigued, go watch it!

Thanks for listening / reading. Next Thursday 26 April we’re looking at Buddhist death metal! Tune in at 10.30am on 2SER 107.3.