Torah Hardcore, PunkTorah, and the Punk Influences of Up-and-Comers in the Jewish Music Scene
When I learned about Moshiach Oi! last August, interviewed them in November, and saw them live in February, I didn’t expect to witness the milestone that took place on Tuesday night. In front of dozens of people, at a show they headlined, Moshiach Oi! celebrated the release of their debut album, Better Get Ready. I had begun to accept that their “Torah hardcore” music had extremely limited appeal. The fact that I was the only person left in the crowd for the end of their set on Super Bowl Sunday reinforced this idea.
You can’t dismiss Moshiach Oi! They aren’t out to win over the masses. They aren’t trying to become rich and famous. They aren’t even looking to sell a lot of records. Guitarist Menashe Yaakov said he’s only made 250 copies so far (he can easily make more with a machine he has at home), and at Tuesday’s show, anybody who wanted one received a free copy. Moshiach Oi! is committed to their music and to Torah Judaism. If they can have fun, make music they’re passionate about, and praise G-d, they’re more than happy only winning over a relative handful of fans.
The CD release show was Moshiach Oi!’s second concert since singer Yishai Romanoff returned from a six-month stint in Israel. He split his time between studying at the Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem, studying in yeshiva in Tsfat (which he preferred), and touring around with the Nanach van. In February, he told me that his studying in Israel would fulfill the “I want to learn Torah every day” pledge in his lyrics. “I still want to learn Torah every day,” he said on Tuesday.
Moshiach Oi! played at least 14 songs on Tuesday, with the vast majority coming from Better Get Ready. They generated a mosh pit that at times was quite fierce, rocked out hard, and were accompanied by guest maraca player Mr. Rattles. Many of their songs have incredibly simple lyrics but are nevertheless effective in focusing on Orthodox Jewish concepts. “Baruch Hashem” features the lyrics “Baruch Hashem” (“Bless G-d”) and “Oi” only, and “Moshiach Oi!” features the lyrics “Moshiach” (“Messiah”) and “Oi” only (besides the intro line “Guess who’s coming to dinner”). The lyrics to songs like “I Wanna Learn Torah,” “I Love Torah,” and “Shabbos” are only slightly deeper. Despite many songs’ basic lyrics, no one could deny the power of Yishai’s words when he screamed “Shema Yisroel” while crouched down in the pit.
Perhaps the overall lyrical simplicity is why I am so moved by a song I didn’t know before, “Am Yisroel Chai,” which translates to “the people of Israel live.” Yishai introduced the song by saying, “I’m a Jew, and this is a song about what it means to be a Jew.” With a backdrop of blistering hardcore, Yishai screamed beautiful lyrics:
We stand for life, they stand for warMore striking than what was on the album and on Tuesday’s set list was the fact that one song was missing: “Loshon Hara,” which translates to “evil speech.” Moshiach Oi! performed “Loshon Hara” in February, featured it on their MySpace page, and even made a video for the song. “Loshon Hara” featured the lyrics “Loshon hara, you’re talking s***” and “Loshon hara, shut the f*** up.” Yishai conceded, “It’s a good song,” and seemed momentarily bereaved at the loss of one of his works. He explained that cursing amounts to nivul peh (disgusting speech), which he now eschews. Does he think it’s ironic that a song decrying loshon hara was cut because it promoted nivul peh? Sure. Does he intend to perform it with cleaner lyrics like “You’re talking smack” and “Shut the front door,” as Menashe Yaakov quipped about? No—“it loses its whole emphasis” that way, he said. But Yishai was adamant that excluding the song from Better Get Ready was not censorship because it was his decision, not that of an outside party. Furthermore, he denied my devil’s advocate suggestion that cutting “Loshon Hara” illustrates that Torah Judaism and punk rock are incompatible. He noted that “plenty” of punk bands don’t curse and thought that Bad Brains was one of them, perhaps also for religious reasons.
We stand for peace, they stand for more
We stand for G-d, they stand for death
We’ll scream “Am Yisroel Chai!” with our last breath
Am Yisroel Chai
We will never die
Am Yisroel Chai
We are the children of Abraham
After the Separation, he was the first man
To break apart and raise up a fist
And smash his culture’s lies and scream “Resist!”
The word’s been spoken, it’s crystal clear
It doesn’t matter if you’re far or near
The day is coming, we’re going home
Hear this, my yiddin, you are not alone
We live in exile, we live apart
We live in a world where there’s no heart
My brothers and sisters, open your eyes
G-d will redeem us, Am Yisroel Chai
Moshiach Oi! isn’t going away anytime soon. Yishai has written five or six songs for their sophomore release. He has already recorded a demo of “This World Is Nothing,” which can be heard on the band’s MySpace page, and Moshiach Oi! performed it on Tuesday. And after hearing Menashe Yaakov discuss this week’s parsha with me on Tuesday and with Yishai on Thursday, I have full confidence that they will stay true to their roots.
A couple of hours before CAN!!CAN’s debut New York City performance on Thursday, Patrick denied that CAN!!CAN was a punk band, a Jewish band, and probably a few other labels along the way. He said that he has been heavily influenced by punk, especially in his performance style, but he’d sooner call CAN!!CAN’s music experimental rock or heavy rock. Patrick, the only Jew in the three-member band, said that the CAN!!CAN songs “Betrayer/Deceiver” and “Make a Pretty Motion” have “overtly Jewish themes.” Nevertheless, he said, “We’re not a Jewish band. I’m Jewish. My work with PunkTorah is how I get a lot of that energy out.”
Patrick started PunkTorah, which uses videos and other Web content for outreach and reflections on the weekly parsha, in April. Whereas Moshiach Oi!’s “Torah hardcore” focuses straightforwardly on Orthodox Judaism, Patrick—who usually davens with Reconstructionists—says PunkTorah is founded on the principle that “innovation is the spirit of Jewish tradition.”
Patrick’s proudest success with PunkTorah is getting feedback from people he has touched. He boasted about hearing from a tattooed gay man who was looking to convert to Judaism and an atheist Jew who was motivated to start going to shul. Patrick explained:
[PunkTorah is] not so much about punk rock as it is about taking people you would never see connecting with Hashem and grabbing them by the shirt and saying, “No. Don’t let anyone naysay you. You belong here.” I believe that G-d’s world, the world that we’re supposed to create, is a place of loving acceptance, tolerance, [and] openness. And I believe that that’s where G-d wants everybody to be.
CAN!!CAN played five songs I recognized: “Widowmaker” and “Coaxed,” from their All Hell album, and “G-d Lives in New York City,” “El Paso,” and “Wife to Die,” which I’d discovered online. It didn’t matter much that I was unfamiliar with some of the songs or that most of the crowd presumably knew none. You’d have to be dead not to feel the energy of a CAN!!CAN live show.
Numerous punk rock acts have put their cultural Jewish identities front and center, but fusing punk with religious Judaism is rather new. In a January Forward article that introduced Jewish music fans to CAN!!CAN, Liz Nord—director of the 2005 documentary Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land—was quoted as saying, “All the bands I’ve heard that are Jewish punk bands, they aren’t like Christian punk bands that are so sincere, like, ‘I will follow you, Jesus!’ They’re much more like silly, funny punk bands.” Here’s what Nord had to say earlier this week when asked about that statement:
I don't feel like an expert at this point. I think it's where the genre was at when I said it and it now seems to be getting more depth and diversity, which is a good thing in any scene, but … whether this Torah-heavy music can really be considered “punk” is up for debate.Perhaps it’s wrong to think of Torah hardcore and PunkTorah as the evolution of Jewish punk. After all, many Jewish punk bands—particularly Moshiach Oi!—formed in a vacuum without much knowledge of each other. As Jack Zaientz, who runs the Jewish music blog Teruah, points out, Moshiach Oi! seems to have more in common with musicians in other genres who seriously embrace Judaism than with shtick-oriented Jewish punk acts like Yidcore:
I've seen the same trend [of embracing Judaism] in Jewish rock (Shlock Rock is long gone, hello Matisyahu) and Jewish hip-hop (bye bye Etan G, hello Hip Hop Hoodios & Y-Love). Even the campy cabaret stuff has improved in quality: Jewdyssee is fabulous. There's still lots of schticky bands out there, but they're getting crowded out by folks who are really serious. Some are on the Chassid mystical Judaism train (e.g., Matis, Y-Love, Moshiach Oi!), some non-mystical but religious (… Stereo Sinai), others cultural (Jewdysee).Moshiach Oi! and PunkTorah might represent the future of Jewish punk music and culture.
The influences of punk at the Shemspeed festival could be seen far beyond Moshiach Oi! and CAN!!CAN.
Tuesday’s show started off with the debut performance of Burning Bush, who did metal covers of songs by punk bands Bad Religion and Flogging Molly in addition to typical metal fare. At the beginning of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Burning Bush’s singer chanted the characteristically punk “Oi! Oi! Oi!” in place of the “Hey! Hey! Hey!” heard in Metallica’s live performances of the song.
Juez played next, with self-described “punk klezmer jazz.” The punk elements of the band’s sound were far from obvious, but Juez did seem reminiscent of bassist Yoshie Fruchter’s other band, Pitom (self-described “punkassjewjazz”), in which he plays guitar.
Y-Love—a rapper who performed on Thursday—shouted, “Punk rock for life,” from the audience at least three times on Tuesday night. Before the New York shows, he campaigned online for moshing, saying that “there are multiple punk bands playing—this means a mosh pit is a chiyuv d’rabbanan [rabbinic requirement] and one would be remiss not to join/participate in one.” Y-Love led the way in the pit throughout Moshiach Oi!’s set, taking a brief respite only when he got punched in the face. “No blood, no fowl,” he said afterward.
Y-Love said that he has been a punk rocker since his teen years. Even though he performs hip-hop music rather than punk rock, he considers his lyrical content to be punk in nature. He has written some verses for punk songs and would like to perform them with a punk band some day.
Rapper Eprhyme also had a CD release show as part of the festival. “Punklezmerap,” the single and music video from his new album, includes the lyrics “Before hip-hop, I was into punk rock.” Eprhyme said the song has punk spirit and tempo, and when he performed it live on Wednesday, I heard rap but felt like I was listening to the sheer intensity of punk rock—or at least klezmer-punk. Eprhyme told me that he was into punk as a teenager and played bass (“not professionally”) in a punk band. He was part of the independent music scene in Olympia, Wash., which revolved around a DIY punk aesthetic. He sees hip-hop and punk as interrelated, as both are fitting vehicles for discussing complex social and political issues, and said it’s “not odd at all” that so many artists at the festival have punk influences.
“Punk and hip-hop really kind of grew up together in New York City,” Eprhyme said. “To me, hip-hop was punk as f***.”
Wednesday night’s opening act, Girls in Trouble, is an indie-rock tribute to women in the Bible who typically don’t get too much attention in talk about the Torah (or, for that matter, in rock ‘n’ roll). JDub Records will release the band’s debut album in October. Girls in Trouble’s music doesn’t sound like punk rock, but singer, guitarist, and fiddler Alicia Jo Rabins and bassist Aaron Hartman both have street cred. Rabins is the fiddle virtuoso behind the renowned klezmer-punk band Golem and also played in a kitschy Jewish punk band named KOSHER when she was in high school. Hartman has played bass in the experimental/punk/indie band Old Time Relijun for nearly 15 years.
Rabins said she respects the “pure form of punk,” but “if punk means taking your own vision” and running with it, then Girls in Trouble could be thought of as punk. Hartman added that punk is about following your instinct and “more about a philosophy than a sound.”
Punk isn’t just about a singular mohawked, three-chord stereotype. It’s a widely influential and much more varied body of music, a mindset, and a lifestyle for artists from diverse musical backgrounds, including quite a few members of the tribe.
This post was slightly revised on 8/30.