A couple of weeks ago was the Jewish holiday of Purim.
For the uninitiated, Jewish holidays come in two general flavours. There are those where Jews turn their guilt dial up to maximum strength, flagellate themselves for their sins, and recall in painful detail every miserable thing that has ever happened to the Jewish people. And then there are those holidays where we actually allow a tiny bit of happiness to enter the room. Given the aforementioned sense of Jewish guilt, there are far more of the former than the latter.
Purim, however, falls squarely into the happy holiday group. The festival recalls the story of Esther, a Jewess living in Persia in the 4th century BCE. Arch-villain Haman, the King’s vizier, has hatched a cunning plan to wipe out the Jews of the realm (so, what’s new?). However, to save the day Esther marries the King, and with guidance from her uncle Mordecai foils Haman’s dastardly plot. Haman is executed, Mordecai is appointed vizier in his place, and everyone lives happily ever after.
To commemorate these long-ago events, the modern holiday of Purim has become all about having fun. Children put on fancy dress and go out in search of mishloach manot (packets of goodies) and play pranks on those who don’t oblige. It’s the Jewish equivalent of trick-or-treating, I guess. For their part, adults are meant to read the book of Esther, get inspired by the story of survival and victory, and celebrate. For many ultra-Orthodox Jewish men this has become a licence, one night a year, to get blind-drink and carouse wildly until dawn.
In Singapore (where I live), the Jewish community is tiny and this carousing is confined to the community centre, or perhaps a private party at someone’s home. In Australia (where I grew up), the Jewish community is bigger, so there is usually a party in a public park, on account of which the festivities tend to be quite tame – more of a community fun-fair than anything else; a quaint, slightly ethnic celebration happening out on the fringe of the bigger, non-Jewish world out there.
Not so in the UK, apparently. I had been told that in English urban centres with sizeable Jewish populations, the scale and nature of the annual Purim bash has to be seen to be believed. So being in London for work, and with not much else to do this Purim, I ventured north to an area with a large Orthodox-Jewish presence. I had been told to visit a particular park, which on Purim is Ground Zero for community celebrations.
Well. It was an eye-opening experience, if ever I have had one.
Walking towards the park in the early evening, the first thing I noticed were the decorations. Just about every house in the neigbourhood had draped a banner across the front windows or door, wishing us all “Happy Purim“, in English and Hebrew. Similar banners were strung across the streets, tied off between lamp posts and trees. You see this sort of thing every year around Christmas time, of course, but I had never before seen street decor like this in a Jewish context. Which kind of set the scene for what came next.
Many of the roads around the park had been blocked off, and as darkness fell these roads became pedestrian walkways, populated exclusively by Orthodox Jews in their hundreds, if not thousands. There were men in black suits, women in frumpy skirts pushing infants in prams, and toddlers following behind. Despite the cold, on every corner was a gathered group of men – young and old alike – singing and laughing and clearly drunk out of their minds. Teenage girls were huddled in animated discussion on nearby park benches, while swarms of children – boys in super-hero costumes, girls in fairy-outfits – ran around everywhere, unchecked and unrestrained. My favourite was a little boy dressed in a tiger suit, peyot (sidelocks) poking out from under the tiger ears. He was so laden with boxes of sweets and lollies that he could barely stand upright.
I stopped to watch a group of completely shit-faced teenage boys, in dark-suits and fedora hats, halting cars in the street and serenading the drivers while Hebrew songs blasted out from a nearby stereo. The lined-up drivers in turn honked their horns, while behind them squads of kids sprayed their cars with crazy-foam. It was complete mayhem, despite the best efforts of the local constabulary – big burly officers, parading around in bobby hats and yellow police vests, nodding politely to bearded Rabbis, and trying to keep order in this Purim free-for-all.
If you had been walking around the park with me that evening you may well have concluded that the whole world had suddenly converted to hardcore Judaism. Purim had turned the place into a full-blown modern-day shtetl. It was like I had left Anglo-Saxon Britain behind, and entered a twilight zone where the only culture was Jewish, where everyone was an ultra-Orthodox Jew, and where the Purim holiday, not Christmas or Easter, ruled the roost.
And, whilst this might not seem so unusual if you happen to live in Israel or New York, say, it was extremely unusual for me. In the places I am most familiar with (Australia and Singapore) a display of such overt, public “Jewishness” would be unheard of.
Later, as I was leaving the park, I found myself walking along a street where the “Jewish world” I had been visiting ended, and where the “real world” once again came back into view.
A middle-aged woman was sitting at a bus stop. A boisterous group of Hasidic Jews strolled past her, obviously making their way to the Purim festivities that were still raging in the park. There were about a dozen older men in long black-satin coats, some wearing shtreimels (broad fur hats popular with certain ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects). There were also a good number of younger men in the group – seminary students in their early twenties – decked out to a man in black suits, white shirts and black hats, so they looked like a passing troupe of Blues Brothers aficionados. They all had wispy beards, peyot tucked tightly behind their ears, and tzitzit fringes (ritual undergarments worn by many religious Jewish men) were hanging out the side of their shirts.
Oh, and I almost forgot – their group also included one youngish fellow dressed as a clown, and another dressed as a hotdog.
Nonetheless, I didn’t give this whole passing menagerie so much as a second glance. Remember, I had just come from the nearby Purim celebrations, at a park where the world was made up of ultra-Orthodox Jews. So this was just another group of everyday folks, walking down the street.
But then I saw the face of the woman at the bus-stop. She was staring at the Jew-crew as they passed, her mouth slightly agape and her eyes wide with a mix of bewilderment, amazement, amusement, confusion, and shock. Which was all it took – that single look from a random woman at a bus stop – to instantly drag me back to the here and now. I blinked, and something that only a split second before had seemed perfectly normal now became self-evidently alien and strange: a group of 18th century Polish villagers, accompanied by a circus clown and a human hotdog, walking down the footpath.
Of course the woman at the bus stop was staring. To her, my co-religionists must have seemed a complete and utter freak show; the cast of Cirque du Soleil set loose in a suburban English street.
A couple of days later I went for a stroll around Camden markets. This is one of my favourite activities when I find myself at a loose end in London. More often than not the markets bring unexpected surprises, to be ferreted out in the rows of stalls that sell everything from handicrafts to bric-a-brac, antiques, clothing of all sorts, accessories and even money-box reproductions of famous artworks (See my previous post Diamond Skulls and Thai Princesses if you want to know what that is referring to).
The Camden markets are dotted around the canals and locks in the area north of Regents Park, and attract around 100,000 visitors – primarily tourists – every weekend. So, on your average Saturday or Sunday the markets are a heaving, intoxicating carnival of sights, sounds, colours and music. Plus for the food-obsessed (that’s me) there is a veritable United Nations of cuisines on offer, dished out from an armada of food wagons and market stalls and pop-up kitchens. If the mood takes you, as it did me, breakfast can be composed of gallette bursting with the most oozy, gooey, stinky cheese imaginable, followed by Ethiopian beef stew, some Jamaican jerk chicken, fried Spanish churros and strong Italian espresso to finish.
No wonder I love it there.
In any case, having been to Camden markets many times before, and with the recent Purim experience fresh in my mind, on this particular morning I thought to add something new to the itinerary, and went to check out the nearby Jewish Museum of London, also in Camden.
The museum combines in one spot both the London Jewish Museum, founded in 1932, and the Museum of the Jewish East End, founded in 1983 (see my previous post Jellied Eels and Afternoon Prayers for more on this subject). It is well worth the visit, housing a wonderful collection of Jewish objects, ceremonial art, paintings, drawings and photos, and excellent permanent and temporary exhibits that explore different facets of Jewish life in London, past and present.
To get to the Museum from the markets is only a brief ten minute walk, up the Camden High Street and then off down a side road. Although in that short time I left all the tourists behind, and so quite unexpectedly found myself in a different Camden altogether: quieter, more local, and distinctly quirky. I went exploring, and was well rewarded with many offbeat boutiques and cool cafes. It was nice to see locally owned businesses frequented by locals – a marked change from the tourist crush and ubiquitous chain-stores that have come to characterise much of Central London.
And then, ambling along a side-street, I came across a rather large group of punks, who were milling about outside of a small coffee shop.
Some background: punk music as a genre began in the mid-1970s, first in New York but quickly spreading to other global cities, including in particular London. The Sex Pistols and The Clash became pin-up bands for the UK punk scene, and a uniquely English punk sub-culture developed, reaching its hey-day in the early 1980s.
Punk ideology combined youthful independence with anti-authoritarianism, and the movement spawned its own art, literature and music. Punks formed their own communities, often living together in “punk houses”. They developed punk-specific practices, customs, and slang. True punks embraced the punk life completely, living and breathing it wholeheartedly. There was even a special word – “poseurs” – used to describe those punk wannabes who got involved on the fringes of the sub-culture for the “cool factor”, without buying into the ideology.
The visible manifestation of punk, however, is what the broader public most closely associates with the movement. The word “punk” is virtually synonymous with outlandish clothes held together by safety pins; leather jackets and platform Doc Marten boots and metal-stud dog collars; hair dyed into shocking colours, then either shaved into clumps or teased up into rows of spikes; tattoos, multiple piercings and body modifications.
Thirty years ago, Camden was the epicentre of the UK punk scene, and photos from the time show streets where every second person was sporting a pink-spike Mohawk. Today, however, the punk community has shrunk, and what remains has largely gone “underground”. Punks have become increasingly rare in what was once their main stomping ground. So coming across a relatively large group of punks that day, gathered together in front of a small cafe on a Camden side-street, was a first for me.
Not to mention quite the sight to behold. One guy who I will call the “ring-leader” (not because he was in charge, but because he had more nose-rings than anyone else) was wearing a pair of heavy black boots, black skin-tight leggings swirled with skull designs, and a heavy-duty leather jacket with metal studs all down the back. His hair, however, was the stand-out feature: dyed into alternating streaks of jet-black and platinum-blond, and gelled into spikes at least a foot high.
He was surrounded by about half a dozen similarly attired guys, and an equal numbers of girls, all but one of whom were wearing shiny black shoes with three-inch high platforms. They all had tattoos and multiple earrings. One girl had a mane of shocking orange hair; another’s was pink (or at least those bits that weren’t shaved off were pink).
I casually sidled onto at a stool in the cafe and ordered a coffee, as if that had been my intention anyway, and for the next fifteen minutes I just sat there, fascinated by the oddity of it all. Every now and again one of the punks would look my way, and I would quickly lower my eyes, or pick up my phone, or fiddle with my coffee, to make it seem like I was not staring.
I was staring though, unambiguously and rather obviously, and it dawned on me that I was no different to the woman I had seen at the bus stop a few days before, only in her case she was staring at a passing parade of Hasidim.
You can see where this is going, can’t you? Just two days before I had been at a Purim festival in a park, where a slightly odd sub-culture (Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Jews) had seemed entirely normal to me. Yet here, in Camden, another equally odd sub-culture (modern-day punks) seemed utterly bizarre, to say the least.
Which led me to thinking: “is there really that much of a dividing line here?” Both punks and Hasidim live within a defined ideological framework, which to an outsider might seem impenetrable and strange, but which provides internal structure and order. Both punks and Hasidim are found in closed, tight-knit communities; both wear “uniforms” that identify them instantly, not only to the outside world but within their own sub-communities. Both groups have their own rituals and customs, practices and dialects. Both punks and Hasidim are a throwback to a different time, and live their lives largely out of kilter with the modern world that the rest of us inhabit.
And that, dear reader, is where I had intended to end this particular story. Having drawn the rather nifty parallel between punks and Hasidim I was going to make a clever concluding observation – something about not judging a book by its cover, and perhaps that we are all, in the end, God’s children – and leave it at that.
Or at least that was my plan, until a few days ago. While browsing at a second-hand bookstore in Central London, I came across a most unexpected little tome. I saw the back cover first, which had on it a quote from Lenny Bruce: “It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic. If you live in New York, you’re Jewish”.
This had obviously been put there specifically to catch my attention, so I flipped the book over, and saw that it was called The Heebie Jeebies at CBGBs, written by one Steven Lee Beeber. All of which would have meant nothing to me, but for the tag-line on the front cover: “A secret history of Jewish punk”, and inside the jacket cover, was the following quite extraordinary statement: “Focusing on punk’s beginnings in [New York City], Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s proves that punk was the most Jewish of rock movements”.
No freaking way, I can hear you say round about now. Which was my thought exactly. Punk as an expression of Jewishness is a notion that, at first, seems to be out there in “you’ve had a touch too much acid” land. But then I read a little, and was forced to reconsider.
It seems that many of the early influences on, and founding fathers (and mothers) of, the punk movement were Jewish. The list includes Lenny Bruce, Lou “The Jew” Reed, Richard Hell, Joey “Jewey” Ramone (real name Jeffrey Hyman), Tommy Ramone (Tommy Erdelyi, changed from Grunewald, whose parents were Holocaust survivors); Chris Stein (Blondie’s guitarist, who by his own admission created Blondie to be the ultimate “shiksa Goddess”), Malcolm MaClaren, Hilly Krystal, “Handsome Dick” Manitoba (real name Richard Blum), Sylvain Sylvain (a Sephardi Jew, born in Cairo), Lenny Kaye, and John Zorn, to name but a few.
The author goes on to make a reasonably convincing argument that these folks’ being Jewish was not a happy coincidence to them being punks, but was essentially intertwined.
The central thesis is that punk music, born in the 1970’s in the Jewish heartland of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was “the apotheosis of a Jewish cultural tradition that found its ultimate expression in the generation born after the Holocaust”. Punk as a movement reflected “the irony, romanticism, and, above all, the humour of the Jewish experience, this tale of changing Jewish identity in America revealing the conscious and unconscious forces that drove New York Jewish rockers to reinvent themselves – and popular music”. And of especial interest, to me at least, was this comment from a reviewer of the book: “One theme that Beeber refers to often is the link between the Holocaust and punk. His claims make perfect sense: the emotions invested in the children of survivors provided the fuel for punk’s trademark anger”.
Yep, that’s right. Perhaps not the most self-evident of propositions, I grant you, but if you buy the logic then Jews, Judaism and the Holocaust are the holy trinity from which punk was born.
Perhaps I have way too much free time on my hands, but I immediately decided that more research was required into this important subject.
So later that evening I spent a few intimate hours with Mr Google, who yielded up a treasure trove of information pointing to links between Judaism and the punk movement. Which either goes to prove that punks and Hasidim are much more closely related than you may think, or alternatively proves only that on the internet every crackpot theory will find a welcome home, and a band of ardent believers.
In and amongst all the dross I did, however, stumble onto a recently released documentary film – Punk Jews – which has apparently received great reviews wherever it has been shown so far. The filmmakers have sought out what they describe as “fringe strands that have emerged within New York’s Orthodox [Jewish] community … loose bits of sub-culture inside what is often seen as an insular, rule-oriented cloister”.
This in turn led me, as I continued my descent into Judeo-punk obscurity, to a recent feature story in none other than the august New York Times, about a little known New York punk band, Moshiach Oi!, described as having “a full-throated passion for both Torah and Punk Rock”.
The band’s founder, Yishai Romanoff, was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish environment, studying in a yeshiva (religious seminary) for the first ten years of his schooling. As a teenager he strayed from the flock, became addicted to crack and heroin, and found salvation in the punk rock scene. Then, in 2008 he got off the drugs and returned to his roots, by joining what can only be described as a particularly fringe ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, the Breslov Hasidim.
This sub-sect of Hasidism was founded in the early 1800s by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who taught a brand of Judaism that focused on joyous worship of God, often involving wild clapping, singing and dancing. Some Breslovs also practice a “mantra” meditation of sorts, and amongst these a sub-group known as the Na Nachs have adopted as their mantra the phrase “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman”, which means nothing other than being a play on Rebbe Nachman’s name.
That doesn’t stop Na Nachs from often embroidering these words on their clothes, writing them onto just about every available surface, and singing them deliriously, over and over and over, whipping themselves up into an increasingly mad frenzy as they do so. To see these guys in action is a bit like watching what might happen if you injected a group of chanting Tibetan monks with a triple dose of high-grade amphetamine (click here for the video).
At the same time Yishai was becoming a Na Nach Breslov he also began writing punk songs to celebrate his new-found love of Torah. He formed a band with a few other like-minded Hasidim, and hey presto, Moshiach Oi! was born.
As for the choice of name, isn’t it obvious? According to Yishai: “Punks scream oi, Jews scream oy. In Yiddish it’s oy vey this, oy vey that; in punk rock it’s oi, oi, oi. I saw it as a common ground for punks and Jews”.
The members of this Jewish-punk act see no contradiction between their dual identities. Again, in the words of the leader of the band: “To me, Judaism is like punk rock. 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.”
I wait with bated breath for the day that one of my young children tries to use this logic, in an effort to explain to me why he or she has dyed their hair bright green, or pierced their tongue, or stuck a metal spike through their lower lip.
Everything in life is a circle, and in this particular case, the circle came to a natural conclusion when I read the following description of Moshiach Oi!’s most recent performance, not in a basement-dive or a seedy punk-club but in one of New York City’s orthodox Jewish synagogues: “On the Thursday before the holiday of Purim last month, [Yishai] was back among the faithful, sort of: side curls flailing, knees jackknifing up around his torso, leaping, crouching, shouting a Scriptural message from the Book of Ramones”.
See what I mean? Almost at the exact moment I was out and about in the UK, running into Hasidim at Purim festivities and punks at the Camden markets, and musing about the similarities between the two, on the other side of the Atlantic a real-life Hasid-punk was jumping around like a crazy-man in a Manhattan shule, screeching at the top of his lungs: “Avraham was a punk rocker ….my crew is on fire for Hashem [God]”.
Somehow I had travelled from drunken English Hasidim whooping it up at their Purim celebrations, to Camden markets, to the London Jewish Museum, to English punks and their sub-culture, to the Jewish origins of New York’s punk scene, and right back to Hasidim, only now they were punks as well.
I have said it before: if you embrace the journey, travel can often connect the most unlikely of dots, in the most unexpected of ways. If you allow yourself to plunge head-first down the rabbit hole you never quite know where things will lead. Or, as the Hasid–cum-punk-rocker-Breslovs might say at this point: “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman”.
All makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?