Punk Rock Moses: How a Raucous Musical Community Helped Me Rebuild My Faith
May 15, 2012 at 11:13 am, by Joshua Mocle
Growing up, Judaism was an ever-present entity in my life. My family went to synagogue every week, hung Israeli flags everywhere, attended all days of every high holiday, danced in a circle on occasion, kept Kosher (only at home near the shiny, renovated Kosher kitchen though), placed Adam Sandler on a pedestal higher than most other people, and attended every community event. I got sent to Hebrew school while my sister was off cavorting at her BBYO events. When I was 13 I spent my first summer at Jewish summer camp. Generally speaking we were good, little, normative conservadox Jews. When I was fourteen I was enrolled at a multi-denominational Jewish day school and Judaism moved from being a summer and weekend engagement to a full year residency.
Yet despite being largely surround by Judaism for the first 18 years of my life, once I got to college and I no longer had mandatory prayer services two days a week and my well-intentioned but overbearing Mother couldn’t drag me to services from 300 miles away, my Jewish practice began to wane. First I didn’t have all that many Jews to hang out with, then stopped going to shul, then I stopped seeking out Jewish events, then I stopped wrapping tefillin and davening on my own and, finally, I stopped keeping kosher.
While one could write book after book on the complexities of belief, observance and identity within Judaism, that isn’t quite the point of this essay. While I still self-identified as a Jew and kept most of the high holidays (the latter mostly to appease my family), I didn’t really engage in any of the lifestyle choices that would indicate to other people that I was outwardly Jewish. People knew I was, since I never made an attempt to hide it, but in terms of active Jewish practice I was definitely lapsed.
Looking back on it now, I think this happened for one major reason: during my childhood and adolescence, Judaism was never optional for me. Despite Judaism ultimately being a positive part of my life that I look back on with more than a little joy, absolutely none of it was my choice. By hook or by crook, my family got me to services, events, camps and schools and bent over backwards to make sure I was surrounded by Jews and Judaism. My faith was built for me with a “who”, a “what”, a “when”, a “where” and a “how”, but what I never got was that all important “why.” The closest thing I ever got was “because you have to now stop asking.” In a lot of very obvious ways, my faith wasn’t MINE at all. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being Jewish and being around Jews, but once I no longer had some kind of external influence pushing me toward engaging with the religious practice and culture, the lack of a “why” became an increasingly bigger problem that only begat more problems; namely the fact that after a relatively short amount of time, I didn’t particularly care enough to find that “why” anymore.
It was around this time that I discovered Punk Rock.
While I had been an avid music fan for several years and enjoyed punk music quite a bit I didn’t have much exposure to or knowledge of Punk Rock as a subculture. As a form of highly aggressive musical expression, my teenage angst and firm belief that the entire world existed to hinder me (teenagers, am I right?) drew me to the cacophony of the style, but at this point I wasn’t quite at the point where I could think very deeply about the music I listened to.
Much like Judaism, where you can ask four Jews to define it and get four different answers, Punk means many of different things to many different people. However, some of the core concepts make the jump from scene to scene relatively intact. Given the aggression inherent in the musical style, most people not familiar with the scene wouldn’t think the music itself would hinge on concepts like positivity, self-respect, universal acceptance, non-violence, overcoming adversity and intellectual and psychological freedom. The more I learned, the more captivated I became as many of these concepts clicked with me as a semi-rational human being. With each new record that I listened to and each new concert I attended, I became more and more indoctrinated. I began to dance more, and then sing along to every word and, on select occasions, grab the microphone and steal a sliver of spotlight for myself. I wasn’t a fan anymore, I was a believer.
One aspect of the Punk ideology that rang particularly true with me was the concept of DIY (standing for “do it yourself”). In the 1980s, the American Hardcore Punk movement institutionalized what it really meant to live within the Punk ideal. These bands, with their riotous, often times chaotic and aggressive sound and anti-authoritarian subject matter knew that there was not a single record label in the world that would put out their records and foot the bill for them to go out and play them for the world at large. That was, in fact, the point of the endeavor.
So they worked day jobs in ice cream parlors to scrounge enough money together to record an EP and buy a van and made their way from city to city and country to country speaking their minds to likeminded individuals and doing it entirely on their own dime. Simply put, they saw a need for a new type of music; a raw, honest music that was in every way what the largely corporate, homogenized music being played on the radio wasn’t. A music that encouraged people to think more deeply about their own lives. They saw a need, and they filled it entirely on their own for no other reason than to prove that they could. They sacrificed comfort, stability and longevity in order to prove that they had control over their destiny, no one else.
These early bands set a precedent not only for underground and independent music in this country, but (possibly inadvertently) defined a very obvious and simplified approach to life. One that put the power back into the hands of the individual. One that posited that if something needed doing then there was no better person to get it done than you. Almost like some kind of epiphany, I no longer needed an external motivator to justify my actions for me. It seems like a simple idea in retrospect, but my “why” was “because I damn well said so.”
And then, a complication arose.
In 2008, one of my favorite bands released a new record. The band was Paint It Black and the record was New Lexicon. Just over a half an hour from top to bottom, the record was a fast, atmospheric and aggressive flurry of raised fists and positive ideas. Using natural aggression to convey a positive message was something I liked the most about punk and hardcore and this record was by far the best example of it seen in years. Ideas like taking care of your body and overcoming adversity, defeating conformity and personal rebirth poured out of the tracks like an open floodgate. However, there was one lyric in one song that brought my engagement to a standstill. In the first verse of the track “Past Tense, Future Perfect” (which also happened to be the first single off the record and pretty damn catchy) was the line “you say God’s got in for you/you’re f***ed/but I don’t believe in him.”
Anti-religious sentiment was not uncommon within Punk music and the Punk community at large. After all, it was a genre that was based, at least partially, in resisting self-proclaimed authority and building your own path. While I’m sure we all come to religion in different, usually healthy ways, it would be hard to deny the existence of religious oppression in this world and especially in the United States. This meant a very large part of the community and ideology I held so dear was in direct competition with another community and ideology that I also held dear. It was at this point that I realized that, while it was strained to the point of invisibility, my connection to Judaism was still there. Some part of my faith WAS still mine; at least enough to give me pause when it came time to deny the existence of God while singing along at a concert.
Because the truth of the matter is I did believe in God. Not the “sitting on high and judging every move you make and punishing you if you are bad” God as so many other people tend to accept, but a more loving, nurturing presence in my life. My God wanted me to the best person I could be and it didn’t matter how I got there. My God also liked stage diving. Oh, and more importantly, my God was a woman (and looked a bit like Joan Jett). This, obviously, put me at ideological odds with both the Punk scene itself and many modern Jewish thinkers. But I quickly realized that if I truly wanted to hold to anything the Punk scene stood for, I wouldn’t bow to any influencing body, INCLUDING the scene itself. I couldn’t deny that I was still drawn to being openly and actively Jewish, so I thought about ways I could cultivate that connection.
I couldn’t go back to the blind, mechanic observance I had participated in as a child. “Because you have to and stop asking” was no longer an answer I could accept. After spending so much time meditating on the idea of creating your own intentionality and justification, I could never go back to reading through texts I either didn’t know the meaning of or didn’t agree with on a fundamental level. I also didn’t really feel the need or desire to explore a different, more modern sect of Judaism than the one I’d been raised with and I wasn’t looking for a new religious path outside of Judaism either.
I wasn’t looking for a new label to slap onto my forehead or a new drum to follow the beat of. I was looking for a religious belief that stemmed from the belief of my ancestors that I could relate to as a human being. I was looking for a way to connect with my God through rituals that could bring me the same motivation, balance and inner peace that I had found within Punk Music. In other words, I wasn’t looking for a Judaism that worked for someone ELSE, I was looking for the Judaism that worked for ME.
I quickly realized that that Judaism didn’t exist. Which therefore meant I had no choice but to build it myself.
Over the last several years I’ve done a lot of soul searching and a LOT of research into both modern and historic Jewish practice. Given how rigid and unwavering my practice had been prior to college, it took me a while to truly accept that no one could judge me for any of the choices I made, at least not anyone that had the power to affect my life in any way. At the end of the day, the only one that could really judge me was myself, and therefore if a certain element of practice rubbed me the wrong way I was not obligated to follow it. Again, my God worked FOR me, not against me. Much to my surprise, I found that a lot of modern Jewish tradition worked for me in ways I hadn’t been able to contextualize before.
Everything I felt about pursuing knowledge, acceptance and, when needed, redemption was present in the Amidah prayer and, of course, concepts like tzedakah and tikkun olam already fit perfectly into my way I approached my secular life. I believe in fasting on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av as it truly highlights both the penance and remembrance those two days are based upon. Conversely, I found the concepts of Kashrut to be particularly vexing.
There were parts that I agreed with, namely that observing a dietary restriction forces us to stop and think about our day-to-day activities and deters us from blindly going through life on auto-pilot (in other words, being intentional about what we eat allows us to be intentional about everything we do and think). That having been said, the core of the law stems from one verse in the Torah that states you couldn’t boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk, and to me that wasn’t enough to justify separating meat and dairy. However, it did make a fairly convincing argument for vegetarianism, which was an idea I was already pursuing because the Punk scene had gotten me interested in the animal rights movement years before anyway. Tradition met tradition head on and found a way to work in tandem.
This past September, I did not go to synagogue on the high holidays for the first time in my life. Despite coming from different places with our practices prior to this, my girlfriend Samantha and I decided that on this first high holiday season that we spent together that we would build our own tradition together. We bought Machzorim and spent our Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur actually reading through them, just the two of us at home. We did this because we realized we both, for different reasons, never had. I had gone to synagogue on the supposedly most important days of the year all my life, memorized prayer after prayer or stood idly as they were recited in my name and I never once made an effort to truly read through them to see if I actually agreed with what I was saying (answer: I usually did with a few key exceptions). And I have never had a more meaningful high holiday experience because from start to finish it was ours and no one else’s. The “why” was “us” and that was more than enough.
Will we ever go to synagogue again? Probably. Just because we found value and peace in doing things ourselves doesn’t mean we don’t see value in communal prayer. But before I am ready to commit to any instance of organized Judaism I want to make sure that the way I observe is something I can relate with and find joy and meaning in. Before I do anything, I need to find my “why” and I find new ones every single day.
Through Punk Rock ideals, I rediscovered my connection to the traditions and beliefs of my family and my ancestors and in so doing held true to both of these parallel belief systems that many believe could only exist in conflict. I’m rebuilding my faith in a way that is equal parts reverence and rebellion, respect and anarchy. And it’s all mine.
Now if only we could get more power chords into Kabbalat Shabbat…
Tags: 1980s, 80s, Adam Sandler, adversity, Aggression, Amidah, BBYO, belief, conservadox, conservative, davenening, DIY, do it yourself, epiphany, Future Tense, God, high holidays, holidays, Jews, joan jett, Judaism, justiifcation, Kabbalat Shabbat, KASHRUT, kosher, Machzor, Machzorim, mother, New Lexicon, orthodox, Paint It Black, Past Tense, Past Tense Future Tense, Prayer, punk, punk rock, Revelation, rock, Rosh Hashanah, tefillah, tefillin, Tikkun Olam, tikun olam, TIsh'ah B'av, Tisha B'av, tradition, tzedakah, United States, vegetarianism, Yom Kippur, יום כיפור, כשרות, מחזורים, צדקה, קבלת שבת, ראש השנה, תיקון עולם, תפילה, תפילין, תשעה באב