A young man in black trousers and an untucked white dress shirt paces in front of his three-piece band crowded onto a small stage in a darkened nightclub, waiting for them to tune up. Not an unusual scene in music venues around the world, except that hanging from four corners around his waist are tzitzit, ritual fringes, and on his head is an oversize white knit kippah topped with a pom pom and the Hebrew words “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman” woven around the edge. A full beard and sidelocks frame his face as he holds the microphone close to his mouth. “This world is nothing,” he shouts, “There’s only Hashem, people. Wake up!!” Meet Yishai Romanoﬀ of the Jewish punk band Moshiach Oi!, one of the stars of the documentary Punk Jews, directed by Jesse Zook Mann and produced by Evan Kleinman with the help of Saul Sudin. Yishai grew up in an Orthodox home in Long Island, went astray in his teens, and returned to Judaism on a mission, making a name for himself in the New York club circuit playing songs inﬂuenced musically by the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, The Germs, Circle Jerks, and the like, but with words borrowed from the songs and writings of the Bratslav Hasidim, followers of the charismatic nineteenth-century Hasidic mystic, Nachman of Bratslav. On YouTube you can see Yishai regaling audiences with his mash up of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” and the Bratslaver song embroidered on his kippah. He calls it “Blitzkrieg Nach.” But this is no musical shtick. True, Yishai exhibits the sly wit common to many punk per-
formers; he knows he seems like an oddity even as he yells at, cajoles, and then jokes easily with the crowd. Still, as he told a French Canadian television interviewer, he believes his brand of music and Judaism is consistent with Judaism’s foundational, “alternative” sensibility, Abraham rebelling against the status quo. Hasidism, too, was punk in its initial appearance because it was for illiterate Jews who wanted to express themselves spiritually by trusting in their own capabilities and knowledge, cleaving to God outside the formal constraints of that age’s normative Judaism. For Yishai, music is an authentic expression of human longing for spiritual sustenance, of delight in God’s creation, and a way to hasten the coming of the Messiah, a view promulgated by Bratslavers the world over, though not quite in the same fashion. Like Y-Love (Yitz Jordan), The Sukkos Mob, the Amazing Amy Yoga Yenta, Bulletproof Stockings, Shaindel Antelis, and other performers featured in and caught up in the press for Punk Jews-a term that refers not so much to a musical style as to the DIY (“do it yourself”) aesthetic associated with punk-Yishai comes across as absolutely serious about his Judaism and clearly having fun. He seems ecstatic in
both the usual and mystical senses of the word. There is a joy in his performance devoid of irony or self-awareness; he never winks at the audience with his inﬂuences. This is a contemporary Jewish culture as performed in New York, a happily serious aﬀair unconcerned with what it is, or what others accuse it of being, and more interested in where it is-in nightclubs, in quasiunderground gatherings in the heart of Orthodox Williamsburg, or literally on the streets of Brooklyn. It is not so much a community as it is a network of young and not so young Jews with shared interests and attitudes about how to make Jewish music in the twenty-ﬁrst century. Overburdened by the past, profoundly ambiguous, and highly self-conscious about the politics
of Jewish identity, And Europe Will Be Stunned (2007-11), a trilogy of short ﬁlms by the Israeli-born artist Yael Bartana, could not be more diﬀerent from the music of Yishai Romanoﬀ. The ﬁlms document three events in the history of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP). In the ﬁrst, a young Polish JRMiP leader stands in a derelict sports stadium, passionately urging the return of three million Jews to their historic homeland of Poland. The second ﬁlm, made in the style of 1930s political propaganda, depicts a band of young pioneers building a kibbutz on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto. In the third ﬁlm, the leader has been assassinated and the movement convenes to mourn his martyrdom and pledge to spread his message and realize his vision. Bartana’s narratives take place in an imaginary time zone that resembles the present, antici-
pates the future, but simultaneously looks backwards. Their style parodies the visual and aural rhetoric of early twentieth-century nationalist movements: the modernist logo, upturned youthful faces, and stirring anthems most obviously reference Zionism, but also socialism and fascism. These symbols are so familiar and so tainted with associations of atrocity that they are impossible to read except as kitsch. And yet they are employed here not in the service of an ideology of racial purity, but as a moving fantasy of multicultural harmony and the redemption of a traumatized European past. Bartana’s irony registers the impossibility of utopian politics today and at the same time, beyond irony, she also evokes nostalgia and longing for collective idealism. The ﬁlms confuse the viewer in other ways, blurring the borders of ﬁctionality. Carefully
attuned to the theatricality of nationalism, each is a small, carefully staged melodrama. Yet the “actors” are in fact real people playing themselves, including the Polish politician Slawomir Sierakowski. A further dimension of Bartana’s project involved the actual creation of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland that she imagines in her ﬁlms. Her work gives form to a concept so audacious and counter-intuitive that it is virtually unthinkable-reverse Zionism-and then asks the viewer: what if this were real? Bartana’s trilogy speaks to a speciﬁcally Jewish history of dispossession and nation-building
but, as she says, “This is a very universal story … These are mechanisms and situations which can be observed anywhere in the world” (Bartana 2011). The imagery of the second ﬁlm, Wall and Tower, for example, recall for some viewers the structures built by early Jewish settlers in Mandate Palestine. For others they may resemble concentration camps. These images and the music soundtrack ﬂow seamlessly between the histories of Poland and Palestine, Poles, Jews, and Arabs. Meanwhile the artist belongs to no single country: she lives in Tel-Aviv and Berlin, and (with the JRMiP) she represented Poland in the 2011 Venice Biennale.