Punk is about going against the grain, giving the establishment the middle finger, and making heavy music that the masses would find unpalatable. Orthodox Judaism is not.
In my book, Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, I explored about two dozen punk rock bands that were overtly Jewish. The majority didn’t put religiousness front and center and focused instead on cultural Jewishness, Jewish humor, and various types of traditional Jewish music. There were five bands that managed to balance their punk rock spirit with Orthodox Judaism. They were unconventional and even wild in some cases, but ultimately they were serious about Judaism.
Yishai Romanoff started the “Torah hardcore” band Moshiach Oi! in 2008. As he embraced Orthodoxy in his early 20s, he no longer connected with most messages in the punk rock he held dear, so he wrote his own Jewish punk songs. Romanoff said, “For me, those basic values of being against the establishment and standing up for what’s right, to me, I saw those same values in the Judaism that I was discovering. So I kind of took punk rock and made it my own. . . . To me, Judaism is punk.” The band has faced unusual challenges through the years. Could screaming “Oi!’ help bring Moshiach (the messiah)? Did a woman’s guest vocals on one song violate kol isha (which prohibits a man from listening to a woman sing because of potential arousal) if her screaming sounded “like a demon from hell”? Would screaming “Shema Yisroel” make listeners “really feel it”?
Guitarist Menashe Yaakov Wagner co-founded White Shabbos as a Jewish response to the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly—a folk-punk band with a Jewish message at the center. Wagner has been ordained as a rabbi but does not openly use the title. He runs Shabasa Records, which focuses on what he called message-oriented, Torah-centric, alternative, rebel music, and he plays in every band on the label, including Moshiach Oi! White Shabbos’s 2004 album included psalms as well as songs about Shabbat, Moshiach, and Rav Avraham Kook. The band’s lineup has changed over time and they don’t sound so punk anymore, but this live version of “Shabbos Holy Shabbos” harkens back to their original style. Play it loud!
The Groggers were an Orthodox pop-punk band with a comic twist. Singer L.E. Doug Staiman was surprised by the band’s success at first: “It was this thing that never should have caught on, because if you got the humor, you’d be offended by it.” Songs on the Groggers’ 2011 debut often required a high degree of Jewish knowledge in order to be fully appreciated. “One Last Shatnez” told the story of a rebel who insisted on wearing shatnez (a prohibited combination of wool and linen). “Friday Night Lights” expressed the narrator’s eagerness to have sex with his wife on “mitzvah night.” “Farbrengiton” dealt with a farbrengin (celebration involving alcohol) on “the rebbe’s yahrzeit.” These were pop-punk songs about breaking the rules, sex, and heavy drinking, through a Jewish lens. In “Get” (the Groggers’ breakout song/video), Staiman encouraged a man to grant his wife a get (a religious writ of divorce). The song was not intended for a large, general audience with lyrics like “You’ve been on a losing streak since the sheva brachos week,” but the song was catchy and the hilarious video attracted fans.
Until breaking up in 2009, Yidcore was the standard-bearer for overtly Jewish, zany punk rock. Their shtick included drinking Manischewitz wine out of a shofar, throwing around Jewish foods, and using their songs to woo Natalie Portman and lampoon Adam Sandler. Yidcore did not come across as Orthodox in any obvious way, but singer Bram Presser was the executive president of an Orthodox synagogue. “Not all the shul members approve of me, but they do say they like me when I am quiet,” he explained. In “Punk Rock Chanukah Song,” their parody of Sandler’s version, Yidcore acknowledged their Jewish punk forefathers: “Joey Ramone ate matzoh at the seder/Just like Richard Hell and most of the Dictators.”
Around 2001, a group of Orthodox teenagers came together in Miami and called themselves 7Seventy—named after the address of the Chabad Lubavitch headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Guitarist Josh Braham recalled that he and his bandmates were “trying to reconcile” the musical styles they appreciated with the religious messages they found meaningful. The band’s performances included a bar mitzvah, Rosh Chodesh celebrations, and backyard shows. Braham had not heard of any other Jewish punk bands when 7Seventy formed, but he learned about Yidcore shortly afterward. He said the religious content of 7Seventy songs was “absolutely genuine,” as opposed to Yidcore’s “mockery.” Braham did not want 7Seventy to be too edgy anyway, out of fear that he would get expelled from his yeshiva. He later ran the blog A Frum Punk.
Michael Croland is the author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, which was published in April by Praeger (an imprint of ABC-CLIO). Check out the book to learn more about all the artists featured in this guest post!