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.
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?
Beeber's book sees punk as a specifically Jewish outgrowth of post-Holocaust awareness--and shame. A new generation of Jewish boys sought to express their horror at the concentration camps by caustically embracing fascist aesthetics and an iconography of raw power. Rather than sink into what they saw as a mire of self-pity and narcissistic victimhood over six million dead, the Jewish punks preferred to rock out with swastikas, pose meaningfully with Nazi flags, and do their utmost to shock the living daylights out of their parents. Seeing the Holocaust as a moment of tragic weakness, the Jewish punks sought to never be weak again.
Or so Beeber says. The punk movement was never quite as uniform as Beeber has it, nor was its Jewish component as explicitly Jewish as he makes it out to be. Key figures like Tommy Ramone preferred to keep their Jewish identity in the shadows, preferring a white-ethnic, outer-boroughs style hilariously dubbed "Juido." Moreover, being an all-embracing, all-encompassing lifestyle more than a mere musical distinction, punk sought to displace Judaism, as it displaced any religious or cultural affiliation. Punk was a calling, a source of meaning, and a religion of its own. To point out that there were many Jewish punks is akin to pointing out that there were many Jewish Communists; while true, it ignores the fact of the newer identity essentially canceling out the older.
The punks kept faith with Judaism less in the ideas they espoused than in the position they took vis-à-vis mainstream society. Having far more in common with their immigrant parents and grandparents than they might have been comfortable, or familiar, with, the Jewish punks simultaneously sought to maintain their status as a people apart, divorced from mainstream culture, while desperately in search of the approval of that very same uncomprehending mass. What, after all, was the significance of the punks' embrace of Nazi culture and other similarly toxic aesthetic motifs, if not an angry response to the seeming inability of the bourgeoisie to grasp the nature of their revolution?
The Jewish punks, like their immigrant forebears, sought to fit in and stand out, to be celebrated and to be ignored. Like their predecessors, the punks also flocked to the dingy, crime-ridden, tenement-dotted city, only in far smaller numbers, and as a lifestyle choice, rather than because there was nowhere else to go. For the punks, the very nature of their beliefs made them a people apart, divorced from society at large, and yet, deep in the marrow of their bones was a clamorous urge to be celebrated, and to be accepted.
How apropos, then, that so many of the New York punks were also Jewish. Punk may not have been Jewish, but its push-and-pull dynamic regarding American culture at large might as well have been.