They are the ultimate crossover artists, moving freely between the worlds of Orthodox religious observance and edgy secular artistic expression, albeit with a strong Jewish twist.
Some are chasidic outcasts, having left the fold of Satmar or Lubavitch. Others live at the fringes of the chasidic world, improvising a freewheeling sense of spirituality as they ply their trade as rap singers, hard rockers, clothing designers and visual artists.
For the last few years they have forged a loose-limbed community of their own, built around a moveable feast called the “Chulent,” a roving Thursday night party until recently headquartered at the Millinery Synagogue in Midtown that captures the energy of the hipster chasid scene.
Now, two documentary filmmakers and an Emmy Award-winning director want to tell their quirky Jewish journeys — and increase their visibility — in a series of short films to be posted online. And they’ve coined a phrase to define these outside-the-box seekers who want nothing less than to remake what it means to be Jewish and artistic — PunkJews. The words are deliberately run together, it would seem, to stress the collision of worldviews the group of artists is trying to reconcile, or at least hold in creative tension.
“The ‘PunkJews’ film itself grew out of this community,” said Saul Sudin, co-producer of the project with Evan Kleinman. “A lot of people in this documentary are on the fringes of Judaism — they’re thinking outside the box,” Kleinman said. “They’re not being accepted by mainstream Jewish institutions. That will change one day.”
The “PunkJews” poster boy, if you will, is Yitz Jordan, a popular African-American Orthodox Jewish rapper known as “Y-Love,” and his 10-minute segment is one of 10 short films in the series. Y-Love, say the filmmakers, represents the “PunkJews” ethic in the truest sense, and the theme of his segment — a black chasidic rapper trying to find an apartment in Borough Park — symbolizes the clash of cultures inherent in the PunkJews’ narrative. In a trailer for the film series, Y-Love, who converted to Judaism in 2001, sums up his housing predicament, with tongue planted firmly in cheek: “Moses himself couldn’t get an apartment in Borough Park — not with his black wife, who was from the Sudan.”
And then he offers a kind of manifesto of the PunkJews movement: “The modern new school Jewish movement has a huge task in front it — to re-brand God and Judaism to future generations of Jews. What PunkJews is part of is a countercultural, non-mainstream movement showing people you can have a strong cultural identity, religious observance level and still be as crazy with your friends as you want to be at the parties on Thursday night.”
“PunkJews” co-producers Kleinman and Sudin met at one of the Thursday night Chulent parties. The get-togethers, which have been occurring regularly for several years, and which often feature the young hipsters conversing in Yiddish, were originally held in Manhattan and have “been nomadic at times.” Now, says Sudin, a Pratt Institute graduate, the parties at participant Mimi Klein’s home on Ocean Parkway.
“I want to bring all those people in — I want to bring in the Jew that eats treif on Shabbos,” added Kleinman, who is a graduate of the Ithaca College Film School and a producer for NBC. “A Jew is a Jew no matter what you Jew [do Jewishly], and I want to bring all those people” under one big tent.
Partnering with director Jesse Mann (who won an Emmy as producer on “My First Time: The 2008 Summer Olympic Games” on WNBC), the team began working on the “PunkJews” project two years ago. It started out as a feature-length documentary chronicling the experiences of Jordan, Long Island City artist Rivka Karasik and fashion designer Levi Okunov. But through the influence of the Chulent Thursdays, the team decided to expand the project and include a longer list of unconventional Jews in a series of episodes.
For Mann, the free-spirited Chulent scene led him to the project. “That was the place where I could start to ask questions freely,” said the director, who added that he grew up in a household with a number of different religions, among them Jewish, Protestant and Hindu. “And through the film I would like to bring that kind of environment to everyone that would like to explore, express and be a part of something.”
Trying to sum up what the PunkJews have in common, Sudin says: “They have the ability to cross over, to balance [cultural and religious] aspects of their lives. Art is a big factor in Judaism.”
In Y-Love’s case, his art can be a force for bringing Jews together, the filmmakers believe.
“He brings a message of unity and Torah while he tours around the world,” Kleinman said. “He can dictate Chumash better than kids I went to Solomon Schechter with. He learned it by rapping to them.”
Along with Jordan in the series trailer are Karasik, who left Lubavitch Crown Heights for an art career in Long Island City, and Okunov, who has faced criticism from his former Lubavitch community for his use of Jewish ritual items in too-revealing designs that runs afoul of Orthodox tznius, or modesty, requirements.
Alongside Y Love, Karasik and Okunov, the “PunkJews” film also features Moshiach Oi!, a Breslov chasidic punk band from Long Beach, L.I., whose members live communally in a house they call Camp Shabbos. Lead singer Yishai Romanoff actually comes from a punk rock background and adopted chasidism later on in life.
“They rock hard,” Sudin said. “It’s real punk music.”
Another quirky character in the film is Yoseph Lieb, author of the book “Cannabis Chassidis.” Lieb is a chasidic family man who began selling his book on the combined virtues of marijuana and Torah door-to-door on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg.
“When you first meet him you would think he’s a couch-surfing hippie,” Kleinman said. “His journey [is about] using these ‘tools’ [read: pot] to benefit him spiritually and to feel a closer connection to his Judaism.”
Also featured in the film is Elke Reva Sudin — Saul’s wife — a visual artist whose “Hipsters and Hassids” painting series is on view at Le Salon d’Art gallery on the Lower East Side.
“My work brings people from all different backgrounds physically together to feel something and connect to something,” she said. “The art is sometimes serious and sometimes satirical, but the main beauty I find in it is how it brings people together.”
“There’s news coming out all the time about a clash or crossover between hipsters and chasids in Williamsburg,” her husband added. “Her painting series reflects this.”
In response to their project, the filmmakers say they have faced some objection from more mainstream corners of the community. While not naming names, Sudin said, “I’ve had an uphill battle to convince [potential supporters] that what we’re doing is proper. But at the same time I think there was a mutual respect. And to me that is the greatest thing — that we’re able to have this dialogue and to discuss what Judaism is.”
Financing the project out of their own pockets so far, Sudin and Kleinman have finished about half of the 10 episodes. But in order to finish it they’re aiming to raise $10,000 by July 6 through Kickstarter.com, a Web site that collects pledges but only pays out if the cause reaches its target goal. By late Monday, they had accumulated nearly $9,300.
(In return for contributions, they’re offering prizes like concert tickets, Jewish keffiyehs, Shabbat dinners and made-to-order Okunov bubble coats.)
Film subjects like Elke Reva Sudin and Yitz Jordan are hoping the PunkJews movement is here to stay.
“Like the San Francisco mayor said about Proposition 8 [the same-sex marriage amendment] — whether you like it or not, it’s the future. PunkJews is the future, too,” Jordan said. “The cookie-cutter molds that [mainstream] Jewish communities have set up are not sustainable.”
The filmmakers behind “PunkJews” will host a fundraising event on Saturday, June 19, at 9:30 p.m. at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue. For more information, visit punkjews.com.
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