PuNk RoCk HoRa! Q & A With Writer Michael Croland

Michael Croland has written two books on Jews in punk, Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! (Praeger, 2016) and Punk Rock Hora: Adventures in Jew-Punk Land (Kindle Direct Publishing, 2019). The former is generally an in-depth study of Jews expressing themselves and their Jewishness through punk music and culture, while the latter is more of a b-sides collection of blog entries and magazine articles about Croland’s experiences going to shows, befriending bands, and becoming deeply involved in an extremely niche scene of which most Jews have probably never heard. Unless they read Hevria.  

I read my copy of Punk Rock Hora and realized that Michael Croland has a perspective on self-discovery and culture that seems definitively unique. Instead of writing an obligatory review of the book — it’s a fun read and gives clear insight into Croland’s energetic, youthful obsession as well as insight into a sometimes irreverent and always loud and diverse Jewpunk culture — I thought it might be more enlightening to send him some probing questions. The following is our exchange. 

Let’s start with the basic bio information. Tell us who you are, where you come from, and how you came to be obsessed with Jews in punk. 

I’m the author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk (Praeger, 2016) and Punk Rock Hora: Adventures in Jew-Punk Land (Kindle Direct Publishing, 2019). I grew up on Long Island, and my gateway into punk as a teen was commercial pop-punk bands (The Offspring, Green Day, and Blink-182). In college, I got into political punk (Anti-Flag) and Celtic punk (Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys). I would go to Celtic punk shows, and the Irish-America kids clearly knew the original songs and got the references at a higher level. I thought it’d be awesome if there were Jewish punk bands I could appreciate in the same way! In 2005, Yidcore released Fiddlin on Ya Roof, covering the full Fiddler score with punk rock versions. I pitched an album review to the editor of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine, and she asked if there was a larger context for Jews in punk. When I found a lot more, she had me write a feature. That 2005 article was the framework for all my Jewish punk writing to follow!

What was your exposure to Jewish culture growing up? How did you initially define Jewish culture? What was you first exposure to alternative ideas of what Jewish culture could be?

There was no shortage of Jews on Long Island. It seemed Jewish culture was anything that was somehow Jewish but not Judaism in a religious sense: an Israeli singer with an acoustic guitar, Fiddler on the Roof, Seinfeld, Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song,” my grandparents’ Yiddlish, and bagels.

I went to college in Pittsburgh. I was at a Shabbat dinner at Chabad circa 2004, and reggae singer Matisyahu was attending, probably after he signed with JDub Records but before he was a phenomenon. It was Shabbat, so he couldn’t play music with electricity or an instrument. He spoke briefly and beatboxed without a microphone, and I was blown away seeing this visibly identifiable Chassid beatboxing. He was performing as a Jew, but he was performing a cool, underground musical style that was not traditionally Jewish music. I saw him live a few times after that, including on the first night of Hanukkah in 2005 in DC. He called onstage an audience member who hadn’t yet lit the menorah that night and probably would not have on her own. He guided her to say the prayers for lighting the menorah. At one point the shamus blew out. A stagehand was about to re-light it, and Matisyahu said not to; it was OK because it was “Hashem’s will.” I was mesmerized by how he seamlessly combined Jewish expression with a type of music not previously associated with being Jewish. This, too, was Jewish music.

I learned about Yidcore before Matisyahu, but I didn’t get into them in a big way until 2005.

Do you have a definition of Jewish culture now, or is it fluid? 

Let’s say cultural expressions of Jewishness are expressions that are Jewish but not religious Judaism. A musician can have prayerful intent, so it’s not a clear dichotomy. But let’s not get overly analytical or impose a restricted definition of Jewish culture.

Can you define what it means to be punk? 

Punk started in the 1970s in New York City as an underground music movement. Punk rock has grown and remained vibrant in the decades since as a type of music focused on message, energy, and doing things your own way (DIY). The people involved gave rise to punk as a subculture, and doing things in a thinking-for-yourself, against-the-grain manner can be an authentic expression of punk. The latter is a key part of explaining Jewish punks’ approach, regardless of whether it’s about punk rock as a style of music, which it often is.

In your two books, you explore, expose, and delight in expressions of Judaism that are not the normative ways most people understand Judaism is supposed to be about. Can you explain how the punk idealism of d.i.y. and Judaism both attract each other as well as how they clash (no pun intended)? How does the concept of tikkun olam fit into this equation? 

There are a lot of similarities between Jewish and punk cultures, including the style of humor speaking of dark topics as a coping mechanism, the roots in Jew York, and the frequent focus on the Holocaust. Tikkun olam is also one such example, as there’s a significant attention to social justice issues among punk rock bands (e.g., song lyrics, liner notes, onstage commentary, benefit shows).  

One memorable clash had to do with a comedic Jewish pop-punk band and whether they took their Jewish comedy too far. The Groggers released a controversial video for “Jewcan Sam (A Nose Job Love Song),” in which the main character was a high school student who got a nose job so he’d appear more attractive to his crush. Singer L.E. Doug Staiman actually got a nose job for this! The lyrics and video are quite funny, but some critics thought the band took things too far by promoting negative Jewish stereotypes. Staiman eloquently defended the band, including on the TV show The Doctors, by talking about how being able to poke fun at ourselves is a longstanding tradition in Jewish comedy and integral to the survival of the Jewish people. 

How has writing these books and ensconcing yourself in this culture enhanced your own ideas of Judaism, how you practice it and how you express it? 

I feel more secure in my own Jewish identity. I know that I can be an outside-the-box Jew who does things my own way, and that doesn’t make me any less legitimately or proudly Jewish in my own Jewish expression. I am better able to appreciate the parts of Judaism that are the most personally meaningful, and I’m not bogged down in an all-or-nothing dynamic.

Jewish culture is dead, long live Jewish culture. 

That works! In some ways, old-guard Jewish culture, such as my grandparents’ generation’s use of Yiddish in the arts and the popularity of some Jewish institutions, is not what it was and may appear to be dying out. On the other hand, many new projects and ventures are creating Jewish culture in new, exciting, and different ways, including in Yiddish. I’m not rooting for the extinction of the old, but I champion the evolution.

If you’re singing in Yiddish, there’s something Jewish about your band. If the audience is singing along, there’s something Jewish about that audience. Is that a religious connection, or an historical/cultural connection?

It’s a cultural, not religious, experience. They are relating to the language and its associated cultural connections. Perhaps the musicians and/or audience members are also relating to traditions they associate with being Jewish. For example, Fear of a Blue Planet screamed Kish mir en tuchas! (Yiddish for “Kiss my a**!”). The Yiddishisms can also be translated, such as with the Shondes singing “There’s nothing more whole than a broken heart” in English.

You’ve also written about the connection between Jewish punks and vegetarianism and veganism. Are you either? Can you explain the connection? 

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I’ve been veg for the last two decades. The prevalence of vegetarianism/veganism among Jewish punks is partly explained by their interests in social justice, radicalism, individualism, and questioning. These factors provide common ground between Jewishness and punk and help shape Jewish punks’ identities, making it more likely for them to adopt a vegetarian/vegan diet. These factors have led most Jewish punks who go vegetarian/vegan to do so out of concern for animal issues, rather than health considerations. 

I wrote a chapter titled “Vegetarianism and Veganism among Jewish Punks” as part of Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism: Studies and New Directions, which was published by SUNY Press in April, and discussed this in much greater depth. I talked about Steve “Gangsta Rabbi” Lieberman, Useless ID, and members of Yidcore, the Shondes, Moshiach Oi!, the Ramones, The Clash, and other prominent punk rock bands, in addition to Jewish/vegan cooking projects.

That there are punk Jews is one thing, but is there a punk Judaism? Have any of the various strains and styles of music and expression turned into a style of Jewish observance and worship? 

There isn’t a singular punk Judaism, but the ethos of punk, as primarily found in Jewish punk music, has affected some Jews’ religious practices. 

Steve “Gangsta Rabbi” Lieberman—who, with more than 70 albums, is the most prolific Jewish punk artist—founded his own sect of Judaism, of which he is the only member. He created his own language, calendar, and holy books and believes in a strict interpretation of the Torah, vegetarianism, and a direct, open line of communication with G-d. A DIY one-man band in music as well as in his religious life, he is the only member of the sect.

PunkTorah is a nonprofit organization—cofounded by the singer of CAN!!CAN, who since became a rabbi—that isn’t about pushing any one denominational or ideological bent. They make online services and learning, including conversion and rabbinical education, accessible. They want to reach people wherever they’re at—especially people who might feel they don’t fit in going to a conventional synagogue, perhaps because they are LGBTQ or converts or have a mohawk—to take away from Judaism whatever is personally meaningful for them. 

That’s a big deal with these Jewish punks, religiously and culturally: They’re choosing for themselves which aspects of “doing Jewish” matter to them and embracing them rather than what’s prescribed by some religious or other authority.

Some of the Jewish punks you write about are anarchists or atheists or both. Can you explain what about their art is Jewish other than their birthright? 

Jewish punks find their own connections to their Jewish identity in varied ways that are personally meaningful to them.

Both Koyt Far Dayn Fardakht (Yiddish for The Filth of Your Suspicion) and Klunk (short for klezmer-punk) perform radical political songs from yesteryear, some anarchist or socialist, in Yiddish. For Klunk, this includes the anarchist song “Daloy Polizey” (“Down with the Police”), which dates back to at least 1905 and speaks out against Tsar Nicholas. We live in dark times politically, and this is a way not just to sing songs of resistance but to do so as part of a longstanding Jewish tradition that connects with the Jewish people’s history.

Ben Nigunim, the singer of Di Nigunim, grew up in a Chabad family and has fond memories of singing nigunim (wordless melodies) around the Shabbat table with his family. As an adult, he turned into a rebellious punk rocker and ditched his religious observance, but being Jewish isn’t all or nothing. Di Nigunim recorded a turbo-charged version of “L’cha Dodi,” a cornerstone of the Friday night service that welcomes the Sabbath bride. He explained that he “filled it up with all the pent-up angst of the week, like ‘F*ck yeah! Let’s let loose now!’” He removed references to G-d, which, he said, “the religious cats probably wouldn’t dig too much.” NOFX’s “The Brews” is the greatest Jewish punk anthem of all time, and it can inspire Jewish pride and solidarity among Jews. Fat Mike is an atheist, but that didn’t somehow hinder him from writing a song about Jewish skinheads with “anti-swastika tattoos.”

Labels like “anarchist” and “atheist” are not obstacles to making Jewish art when “being Jewish” and “doing Jewish” can play out in so many different ways.   

Since writing these books, have you seen any growth in Jew punk world? Are new bands popping up? Is there anything or anyone we should keep an eye out for? 

Yes! There has been a trickle of new bands since I began my Jewish punk journey in 2005. Back then, Moshiach Oi!, the Groggers, and Schmekel weren’t around yet, and they were key focuses of my first book in 2016. After I finished writing that book, I kept finding out about new bands, so I wrote about a half-dozen new bands in Punk Rock Hora. I saw one of them, Koyt Far Dayn Fardakht, for the first time in December, after the book had gone to print, and their debut EP is tentatively due out soon. Another of the new bands in Punk Rock Hora, Asher Yatzar, broke up, but their drummer is now in another Yiddish punk band called Shtumer Alef. I’m in touch with them about doing an interview for the OyOyOyGevalt.com blog. And then there are old bands that might not be as defunct as they claimed to be! Yidcore, which disbanded in 2009, will reunite for two shows in September for a Jewish festival and a punk rock show.  

Being that we’re in the Three Weeks, many people have stopped listening to music until after Tisha B’Av. Not everyone does so, though. Can you recommend 5 songs from the Jew punk world that are representative of this time in the Jewish calendar?

1. The Three Weeks start with the 17th of Tammuz. In 1922, Rabbi Yisroel Dov Ber Odesser felt weak and broke his 17th of Tammuz fast. Days later, he found a note (petek) acknowledging that he had done so. Rabbi Odesser understood that the petek was sent by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, more than a century after his death, and followers of Rebbe Nachman believe this as well. In “The Petek,” Moshiach Oi! recite the petek verbatim in Hebrew and English. The lyrics conclude with “The sign will be that the Seventeenth of Tammuz/They will say that you were not fasting.” Moshiach Oi! singer Yishai Romanoff explained this part was a “sign to [Rabbi Odesser] that this was indeed a miracle, as nobody else knew that he had broken his fast.”

2. While walking home from Tisha B’Av services in the band’s early days, Shondes singer Louisa Solomon and drummer Temim Fruchter were singing Eikhah (the Book of Lamentations). Solomon explained that they were inspired to “take this melody from Eikhah—it’s so beautiful and all about loss and destruction and mourning.” She recalled thinking, “We have to take the Jewish liturgy about destruction and loss . . . and apply it to this great irony and horror that’s being done in our name.” The Shondes used the melody and message of Tisha B’Av for “I Watched the Temple Fall,” a controversial song about Israel/Palestine that says, “No heart could really beat love for this state.”

3. During the Nine Days, Jews are not supposed to eat meat, so the next three songs talk about not eating meat! In “Without a Choice,” Useless ID, Israel’s leading punk band, discussed how “innocent creatures” have their young taken away from them and are slaughtered for food. “Stop animal abuse,” the lyrics declared. The song noted that while animals might not have a say in whether they are killed for food, people do have a say. In the song’s animated video, the members of Useless ID were trucked to a slaughterhouse. They were stunned by a rooster, decapitated by a chicken, and had their limbs cut off by a bull. After a cow made ground meat from one musician’s leg, a “Kosher” sign was visible.

4. “Glad I Am a Vegetarian” was a vehicle for Steve “Gangsta Rabbi” Lieberman to talk about his vegetarianism with pride. He explained the song by saying, “I did it for the right reasons, as a protest [against] the slaughter of the L-rd’s creatures for human consumption. Although permitted in the Torah (certain animals anyway), many references are there to show kindness and compassion to animals, thus my way of doing that: not eating them.”

5. Yidcore front man Bram Presser tried to woo Natalie Portman, probably the world’s most famous Jewish vegan, in multiple songs. In “Natalie Portman, This Is Your Last Chance,” he addressed the extent of his crush as well as his compatibility with Portman, saying that the two were “meant to be.” He noted that both were “vego yiddin,” a creative way of saying vegetarian Jews. It was not an afterthought that he and Portman were both vegetarian and Jewish. He rattled off both factors at the top of his list of reasons why they should be together.

And what about after Tisha B’Av? What are some good Jew punk tunes to get us out of the Three Weeks funk?

Right around the corner is Tu B’Av, the Jewish love holiday. Yidcore masterfully modernized an old bastion of romance with Fiddlin on Ya Roof. “Matchmaker (An Ode to Natalie Portman)” captures a longing for love like never before. Romance abounds when Tevye screams “Do you love me?” to his wife, Golda. Matters of the heart reach their zenith with Motel in “Miracle of Miracles.”

Rosh Hashanah starts next month. Check out Schmekel’s Tishei songs, my “Mosh Hashanah” playlist, and punk rock songs featuring the shofar. There’s Jewish punk for every occasion!