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‘PunkJews’ Get Their 15 Minutes

I’m re-posting another of my Jewish Week articles this week because the Jewlicious audience would definitely be interested in this new venture, called “PunkJews.” Really eclectic group of New York hipster Jews producing a documentary about their artistic endeavors combined with their spirituality.

‘PunkJews’ Get Their 15 Minutes

Evan Kleinman and Saul Sudin during shooting of “PunkJews.” courtesy of Evan Kleinman

Evan Kleinman and Saul Sudin during shooting of “PunkJews.” courtesy of Evan Kleinman
New documentary in progress grows out of hipster chasid ‘Chulent’ scene.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Sharon Udasin, Staff Writer
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.

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.  Continue reading…

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Sharon Udasin is a staff writer at The Jewish Week. Follow her on Twitter or e-mail her at sharon@sharonudasin.com.

5 Comments

  1. KehillaMonster

    6/16/2010 at 4:55 pm

    This looks cool, but I have several questions. Are there any actual frum from birth people in PunkJews? Is Y-Love a BT? Did the guy left Lubavitch grow up Lubavitch? If we are talking about BTs and not FFBs, then we are dealing with sociologically and anthropologically something very different. It is not that unheard of for BT to still have his or her hand in secular stuff (rap, accounting, volleyball, college, keyboards, record collecting), but it is rare for an FFB person to do this stuff. Thoughts?

  2. Saul Sudin

    6/16/2010 at 6:50 pm

    There are in fact FFB people featured in Punk Jews. There are also BT’s, converts, and those that defy any labels.
    As the last Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “Labels are for shirts, not for people.”
    Every person does something unique that they balance with their religious observance, this is nothing new. The goal of this documentary is to highlight “remarkable” Jews who may be doing something beyond the norm.

  3. KehillaMonster

    6/17/2010 at 1:24 pm

    I am really excited to see this. Are the Satmars and Lubavitchers FFBs? Is Y-Love an FFB? I am just curious. I, personally, think anyone with a neshama is remarkable. Who is funding this? Was there a grant?

  4. Saul Sudin

    6/17/2010 at 5:40 pm

    The project was funded by a grassroots campaign through Kickstarter.com.

  5. themiddle

    6/17/2010 at 10:21 pm

    I’m pretty sure we covered the chulent parties some time back. Isn’t Kelsey one of the people who attends? Y Love, of course, used to write for us, and has performed at Jewlicious Festivals.

    Good luck with the film.

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