On a sunny Sunday afternoon in downtown Baltimore, a group of about 20 gathered for a punk rock show. If the show’s 3 p.m. start time wasn’t out of punk’s character enough, even more peculiar was the venue in which the loud, fast, anti-authoritarian songs were performed: the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
March 4 marked the fifth and sixth events of the series JMM Live, a performance series curated by the museum, which features music, theater, film and literature from Jewish Americans. The afternoon event was called “Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk,” named after speaker Michael Croland’s 2016 book of the same name.
In addition to Croland’s talk, Na Nach Oi!, the stage name of Yishai Romanoff, gave a 30-minute performance of punk songs with lyrics referencing the Torah.
While one would be hard pressed to find any straightforward references to Judaism or the Torah in any of these bands’ lyrics, Croland addressed how some of the pioneering bands of punk rock movement such as Blondie, The Ramones, The Dictators, The Clash and The Patti Smith group all had Jewish members in their original lineups. However, most of Croland’s address was focused on bands that were much lesser known.
“If being an American Jew can feel like having one foot planted in two worlds, these Jewish punks tried to keep one foot in each world while moshing,” he said.
The punk rock genre has a history of bands paying homage to their heritage. Croland remembers going to concerts featuring the bands Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, both Celtic punk bands that appropriate traditional Irish melodies and instruments like bagpipes, fiddle and accordion into their punk rock styles.
“I would go to these Irish punk shows and look at the Irish kids rocking out,” said Croland. “They knew the songs that were being covered. I kind of wished I had that in the Jewish sense.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that Croland began writing about Jewish punk rock upon discovering Yidcore, an Australian Jewish punk band known for their raucous rendition of Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song.”
In addition to Yidcore, Croland briefly highlighted other Jewish punk bands such as The Groggers, The Schleps and Pikesville’s own Kosher. Croland read a passage from his book where he quotes Alicia Jo Rabins, the guitar player from Kosher.
“Some people choose to just focus on one of the worlds and some people try to integrate them. … Playing in Kosher was a way to say ‘I have a lip ring and green hair, but I’m also going to fast on Yom Kippur, and I’m not going to deny either of those things.’”
The night was capped by a performance by Romanoff. Croland quoted Romanoff during his presentation as saying that his music is “a punch in the face … of godliness.” Although Romanoff performed on an acoustic guitar and without a band, his punk snarl, akin to Rancid’s Tim Armstrong with a New York accent, was heard loud and clear.
In fact, Romanoff made it halfway through his set before admitting to the audience that he’d forgotten to turn his small amplifier on. The crowd reassured him that he was loud enough, but he turned his amp on anyway, arguably the most punk rock gesture of the afternoon.
While several of the bands Croland highlighted during his presentation focused mainly on cultural Judaism or Jewish humor, Romanoff and his former band Moshiach Oi! very specifically reference the Torah.
One of the songs Romanoff performed was called “Abraham Was a Punk Rocker,” an allusion to both the Torah and The Ramones. During the song he belts, “Born into a society of lies/ as a young man he came to realize/ that everything around him was deceptive vanity/ Abraham was the first one to break free.”
“I was into punk before Torah. I still love punk, but I love Torah more,” Romanoff said between songs. “This is my way of fixing all those years in the punk rock scene.”
While Croland can now be considered an expert of the Jewish punk rock scene, he steers clear of identifying himself as a punk rocker. He says that the debate over the question “what is punk rock?” is almost like debating the Talmud.
“When I was a teen, I was listening to Green Day and The Offspring and Blink-182,” he said. “I certainly came from the background, but whether or not I was ever an authentic punk, the answer is probably no.”