Jewish Punk

Though few people would associate punk rock with Judaism, the punk movement was created by Jews from Brooklyn and Queens.

Is punk Jewish? At first glance, what music could be less (stereotypically) Jewish? Punk rock, in its classic, Sex Pistols-and-Ramones form, was all about simplicity, rebelliousness, anti-intellectualism, and shock value. Its foremost practitioners kitted themselves out in matching swastikas or dressed like a white-ethnic biker gang straight out of "The Wild One," but it was essential to the project of punk that its musicians appear brutish, Neanderthal, evil--anything but bookish, or well-spoken, or worst of all, nice.



And yet, as Steven Lee Beeber documents in his book "The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's," New York punk was primarily a movement led by Jewish boys (and a few girls) from solidly middle-class families, born and raised in the outer boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn but drawn to Manhattan's club scene like a moth to a flame. The sons and daughters of shopowners and accountants rebelling against their parents' comfortable but too-confined existences--what could be more familiarly, soothingly American? But what is the significance of the Jewish angle, if there is one at all?



The facts undoubtedly bear out a significant over-representation of Jews in the first wave of New York punks. Lou Reed, Joey and Tommy Ramone, Suicide's Martin Rev and Alan Vega, Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, Blondie's Chris Stein, CBGB's founder Hilly Kristal--the list of Jewish punk notables is lengthy, and impressive. According to Beeber, the common thread for many of these Jewish punks was a desire to overturn the stereotype of the feeble, brainy Jew, the yeshiva student or the bespectacled clerk, replacing him with a brawny Jew in closer touch with his inner beast, and intent on shocking society out of its narcotized comfort.



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The new punk Jew was inspired in equal parts by the warriors of the Israel Defense Forces, the comic-book superheroes scripted by an earlier generation of Jewish artists, and an instinctive revulsion at the musical excesses of contemporaries. Stripping down to essences after the overblown pompousness of rock in the mid-1970's, punk cut away everything it saw as being unnecessary, including any prior identity. Punk was not merely a musical genre; it was a rebirth, with each newfound punk reborn in the movement, baptized in the flaming guitars and pogoing bass. How could punks be punks, and be Jewish too?



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