"I've noticed that quite a lot of people who are prominent in the animal liberation movement are Jews. Maybe we are simply not prepared to see the powerful hurting the weak." --Peter Singer (Author, Animal Liberation)


Jewish Punk and Tikkun Olam

Jewishly and not, there are different notions of what punk means. To some it means getting smashed and acting recklessly, and to some it means being straight edge. To some it means constructively working for a better world, and to some it means tearing everything down just for the sake of destruction.

In Abram Shalom Himelstein and Jamie Schweser's book Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing, the character of Elliot sums up what it means to be both Jewish and punk:
There's this part of Judaism that goes like this: God created the world imperfect, with flaws, and then created humans to straighten out the problems. It's called Tikkun Olam, which means 'Fixing the World.' There are a lot of things about my religion that have been difficult to understand and follow, but the idea that this world is messed up seems pretty true, and I accept that it's all of our of [sic] jobs to make the world better.
I always liked that idea. The notion of "tikkun olam" makes me feel like my Jewish and activist/vegan/quasipunk identities are one in the same, and Elliot's quote reinforces that. But of course, there's an element of punk that doesn't seem so responsible. Steven Beeber talked about this in his new book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk (note: this quote is taken out of context):
[T]he punk Jews no longer wanted to work toward the betterment of the world in the most earnest of ways. They wanted to enjoy that world and show their comfort in it. They wanted to make a joke, even a bad, unsophisticated one.
There are two sides to every coin, but something about that quote troubled me. It's not that I disagreed with Beeber's assessment, it's just that I didn't want to accept that side of things. I recently asked Beeber a few questions for an article I'm working on, and I appreciate his reconciliation of two seemingly opposite ideas:
First, you have to consider that the punks were trying to heal themselves as much as the world, and since one can only help others overcome difficulties once one has done so to some extent oneself, indirectly the punks were still engaged in tikkun olam. (You might even say that they were engaged in tikkun olam on a very specific level – for the post-Holocaust Jewish world they inhabited). Second, bear in mind that in the quote you cite I say that they no longer wanted to work toward the betterment of the world in “the most earnest of ways.” Though I don’t say as much directly here, I think I do make plain elsewhere that they were still engaged in good works to a great extent, they just were engaged in them with a sense of humor and fun. Think of Abbie Hoffman throwing dollar bills on the floor of the stock exchange – or of Emma Goldman saying, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Think too of how the personal is political and how I discuss, in the chapter on Nazi imagery, that the use of such in punk was as much to transcend the negative associations attached to those symbols as it was to shock. In other words, the punks were trying to heal the evil that had been done to them and the world as a whole. There’s a reason I discussed Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” and the punks’ own take on what I call “concentration camp.” Just as there’s a reason that Joey Ramone ultimately became directly involved in leftist causes (such as his protest song against Reagan, “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” originally titled “My Brain’s Hanging Upside Down”). Tikkun Olam was there in punk from the beginning. It was just couched in more humor and irony.
Want to learn more about Jewish punk? Check out my articles in New Voices and the Forward. Also, I highly recommend The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's (nonfiction) and Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing (fiction). We might have a Sacha Baron Cohen movie about the subject soon too!


  • At 2/22/2007 9:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    That's really interesting- I haven't read anything like this in a long time. I love when different cultures converge into one within the same person. All of us have some kind of example of this going on, I think. Very intriguing!

  • At 10/23/2008 8:48 PM, Blogger heebnvegan said…

    In October 2008, I interviewed Ishay Berger, the guitarist of Israeli punk band Useless ID, for this post: http://heebnvegan.blogspot.com/2008/10/useless-id-that-hard-working-real-deal.html

    This quote from Berger (which should be considered in the context of my October 2008 post) didn't make the cut but is one more perspective on the "Jewish Punk and Tikkun Olam" issue:

    "[W]ith our band, we don't try to change the world as much as we want to make it a little better, a little cooler, through music."


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