“Punk Jews,” the new documentary having its world premiere at the JCC in Manhattan on Dec. 11, has the peculiar feel of a version of “60 Minutes” concocted by the demented offspring of some MTV producer and a wonder-working chasidic mystic. Only an hour long, the film is the work of a team of Emmy Award-winners, led by director Jesse Zook Mann, and it definitely looks like a pilot for an expansive TV news magazine-type show, although it is hard to imagine what audience demographic it would attract.
The film opens with Yishai Roman, the lead singer of the neo-punk band Moshiach Oi, on a rooftop in New York City, explaining, “Here’s how you bring light into the world.” He proceeds to unleash a volcanic eruption of a shriek, and the credits for the film flash, no less wildly, onto the screen. It’s a maniacally high-energy introduction but the film actually manages to sustain that level of intensity for much of its running time; it is fueled by the ADHD-style editing familiar to all of us from decades of music videos and commercials. A voice-over promises portraits of Jews “asserting their … identity, defying the norm and doing so at any cost.”
A promise or a warning?
In fact, except for the hardcore sound of Moshiach Oi, the subjects of the profiles that follow are for the most part pretty mellow. Granted, after that band has flayed your senses during the film’s opening moments, a beating in an alley might be low-key. But the remaining segments, focusing on Jewish-African-Americans, Amy Harlib the “Yoga Yenta,” the wacky Yiddish street vaudeville of the Sukkos Mob and a somber but hopeful report on a whistleblower against child sexual abuse in an ultra-Orthodox community, are all fairly understated. But all the subjects of “Punk Jews” are profoundly engaging people with great stories to tell.
Kal Holczler, founder of Voices of Dignity, a support group for victims of childhood sexual abuse, is a remarkably calm, intelligent man on a mission. He has wisely focused his energies on helping victims and altering the landscape of the haredi world in the U.S. rather than on hunting down perpetrators in search of revenge. Amy Harlib is an astonishingly limber woman who has taken her contortionistic routines to Jewish audiences, provoking both laughter and renewed interest in the physical and mental health benefits of her discipline. The organizers of Cholent, a free-floating salon of Jewish alternative types, have marked off a safe space for Jews of all types to explore a wide range of cultural and intellectual realms.
Perhaps the single best sequence in the film, a Shabbos visit with rapper Y-Love and his friend and fellow African-American Jew, Shais Rishon, who blogs as Ma Nishtana, gives a grounded, witty and uncondescending look at what it is like to be part of a multi-generational black Jewish community. It’s an episode that punctures myths while introducing us to a community that feels pretty familiar and comfortable, yet clearly has its own unique stance on the state of Jewish America.
As a film, “Punk Jews” feels rather precipitous and definitely unfinished. It is competently crafted but the tone is occasionally uncertain and, in the case of a brief teaser about a visit to the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade, a bit superficial. But as an audition reel for a future TV series on some Gan Eden version of a cable network, it’s suggestive in the best sense.
“Punk Jews” will be shown on Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 7 and 9 p.m., at the JCC in Manhattan (76th St. and Amsterdam Ave.). For information, call (646) 505-5708 or visit www.jccmanhattan.org. For more information on the project itself, go to www.punkjews.com.