Despite Jews being a tribal community whose members have travelled through history together across the millennia, bound together by elaborate rituals and ancient and modern texts, there are many ways to be Jewish. Even ways that might involve punk rock.
So suggests the new documentary, Punk Jews, coming to the ByTowne Cinema on Thursday, January 16, at 9 pm. The producer, Evan Kleinman, will be present for a Q-and-A following the screening. Thanks to a microgrant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, Eric Trottier has worked to bring the fi lm to Ottawa. And, in talking with Eric, I found that themes around Jewish community, identity and belonging came to the fore in intriguing ways.
At 28, Eric, who also goes by his Hebrew name Aharon Yaakov, considers himself a bit of a punk Jew. He likes to go clubbing. He doesn’t want kids. Some days, he wears his hair in a mohawk, which artfully complements the modern, stainless-steel chai he wears around his neck.
The website for Punk Jews has a tagline, “create YOUR culture.” According to the site, Punk Jews “explores an emerging movement of provocateurs and committed Jews who are asking, each in his or her own way, what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. Jewish artists, activists and musicians from diverse backgrounds and communities are defying norms and expressing their Jewish identities in unconventional ways. In the process, they are challenging stereotypes and breaking down barriers.”
Eric is aware of the challenges of expressing his multiple identities through a communal framework, especially when being Jewish is so intrinsically tied to a sense of community.
“You cannot do it alone,” was one of the main lessons in Jewish life Eric took away from his Jewish conversion process the summer before last.
Eric was drawn to the Jewish tradition while researching Judaism for a high school comparative religion class he was teaching. He soon found himself “having Torah debates over lunch” with a Jewish guidance counsellor at the same school and liked that he could interpret the text and try to wrestle with it.
“I was at a point in my life when I wanted a spiritual community and rituals to mark my life and keep me grounded,” Eric told me. “I attended my first synagogue service, and it clicked and made sense.”
For Eric, integrating his gay and Jewish identities has proven challenging, but taking a course through the Vered Jewish Canadian Studies program at the University of Ottawa helped him clarify those personal themes.
“When I walk into the gay world, I have no problems integrating and sharing my dual-identity. When I walk into the Jewish world, however, I feel like I need to censor some aspects of myself for social acceptance and support. I won’t lie about my queer identity and lifestyle choices, but I will de-emphasize them to allow for other aspects of my identity and personality to shine through.”
At a more concrete level, Eric has noticed problematic gender-messaging at the offi cial Jewish community level.
“At Mitzvah Day, for example, you can either give female items for a girls-night-out, or sports gear for a boys’ sports day. When I see examples of that, I and other queer-identifying people, question how welcome we are.”
To his credit, Eric hasn’t simply waited on the sidelines to fi nd out. In October, he hosted a session at Limmud Ottawa on the topic of Jewish diversity – including discussions of gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, conversion, denominations, and minority-majority cultures. In a twist of fate, Eric’s Franco-Ontarian heritage proved helpful as he served as an impromptu translator for an Orthodox Jewish panellist from France.
“I want to share my experiences and to create space for others to share theirs,” Eric told me.
I asked Eric why he wanted to bring Punk Jews to Ottawa.
“Because it shows a piece of the Jewish mosaic,” he said. “The Jewish community is comprised of a diverse membership, each one exploring the meaning of Jewishness in various ways. I feel that this is a point that is becoming known to more people, but still has a long way to go. Who says you can’t scream ‘Shema Yisrael’ to aggressive punk rock?”
Tickets to Punk Jews are $10.
Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, blogs at Haaretz.com.