From a very early time in my life, I had a clear idea what Jewish boys were supposed to be like, how they behaved, and what schools and colleges they would no doubt attend. My father was originally from Frankfurt, Germany, and my mother was a Slavic Jew whose ancestors made their way to America in the 1870s. Many of our family friends—probably the majority of them—were Jewish as well. Their kids didn’t drink, smoke, get into fights or listen to loud music. They worked hard in school, and received straight A’s and accolades all around.
Then came my love affair with punk rock.
My middle brother Arthur played me a tape of the Sex Pistols sometime in the very early 1980s. By this time most music cognoscenti considered punk a spent force: post-punk bands and New Wave had grabbed the attention of music critics, so any group playing the raw three chords of 1977-1978 vintage punk was seen as being hopelessly unreconstructed. But all I knew is that when I heard “Bodies” by the Pistols (or “White Riot” by The Clash or “Kicks” by the UK Subs) it gave me a blast of feeling alive and reckless. And despite the fact that I was the quintessential nerd, with a funny name, the remnants of a lisp, and my older brother’s hand-me-downs, I noticed that people looked at me a bit differently when my musical tastes were discovered.
And even if punk was supposedly dead, its brutish offshoot, hardcore (punk stripped to its most basic structures and attitudes and played at warp speed), was doing just fine. I went to see as many all-ages concerts as I could from fourteen on. Eventually my old flared corduroys and airplane collared shirts were abandoned in favor of army jackets, jeans and combat boots.
Punk and hardcore were vibrant and alive in a way that I couldn’t figure into my academic, middle class Jewish background. It wasn’t until many years later that I found out just how many academic middle class Jews were responsible for this music, from Lou Reed to The Ramones to the Leyton Buzzards. At fourteen and fifteen punk represented an escape hatch from a culture that I found stifling and impotent.
The prickly individualism of the best of the punk bands was was something that seemed to me to be in direct contrast to being Jewish at that time in my life. By adolescence I had begun to associate being a Jew with being a spineless wimp. We were always being hen-pecked by our mothers. Woody Allen was the only famous Jew I knew of for a long time, which was not exactly comforting for a teenage boy. And there was the constant portrayal of Jews as victims. Two mini-series I remember vividly from childhood were Holocaust and something about modern day American Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois. Even my closest friend in junior high, a flabby gaming geek who later became a flabby computer geek, was hardly someone I wanted to be like.
Eventually, even punk itself became insufficient. When I went to private school in 1987, I found many Jewish kids who listened to the same sort of things I liked — but it always seemed like the thrashing noise was being imbibed from a safe distance and being intellectualized to death. There was no risk involved. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be a brawling tough guy, but I saw my high school compatriots as hedging their bets a bit. I wanted to experience the songs I heard, not just listen to them on my father’s stereo. Punk was too easily domesticated, too easily adopted as an accessory instead of something meaningful. I was looking for more, and like a few of my new-found friends, I moved on to the world of skinhead.
Now, I don’t mean skinhead as in American punk kids with shaved heads — I mean the culture within a culture, the direct, made-in-Britain style. The original skinheads from the 1960s listened to the timeless blue beat ska sounds from Jamaica like Desmond Dekker and many others. The cult transmuted from suedehead into soulboy in the early 1970s, but was virtually dead by the arrival of punk. Punk helped resurrect skinhead, for better and for worse. For better because a whole new generation of kids got to dance to the music of the ska bands that came on the heels of punk, and to rediscover the old sounds. For worse because the rebirth of the skinhead style coincided with England’s right wing National Front party riding at an all time electoral high. Various members of the Front’s directorate realized that hordes of short haired, hard-drinking white working class malcontents made ideal shock troops to advance their own ends. At first these newly minted right-wing skinheads tried to latch onto existing punk bands such as Sham 69, The Cockney Rejects and The Angelic Upstarts, as well as the new generation of ska bands like Madness. But by the mid 1980s, under the guidance of the National Front, Nazis skins didn’t have to latch onto punk leftovers for their music. They had “white noise” bands like Skrewdriver and Brutal Attack to give them a soundtrack. Eventually, many bands — in particular, second or third wave English punk bands known as “Oi” bands — actively courted a skinhead following and had a doggedly patriotic streak. Eventually, it got to the point where bands that didn’t espouse the National Front party line were likely to have their gigs disrupted by crowds of skinheads shouting “Sieg Heil,” and were sometimes even physically attacked. Not all Oi bands had these politics, but Oi was often seen as a recruiting ground for the new racist skins, and Oi bands were seen—unfairly—as tacitly approving of this kind of activity.
Over time, the skinhead cult split between those who remembered and celebrated their roots in Black culture, and those who had been seduced by the dark power of extremist politics. Both factions argued that the other was irrelevant, and both groups and their various permutations have thrived and brawled worldwide. Then, as now, there were Jewish skinheads as well as Black skinheads, Puerto Rican and Hispanic skinheads, and Asian skinheads. But there was no denying that entering the subculture brought some built-in conundrums. I was never sure whether to embrace everything about the cult or carefully pick and choose what fit best with my own sense of ethics and background. I steadily downplayed my Jewish upbringing, though few were asking.
My thirst for authenticity of an indefinable sort and the steady erosion of my own sense of identity made me compartmentalize to sometimes ludicrous extremes. A white noise band like Skrewdriver could belt out tunes like “White Power” or even “Free Rudolf Hess” but what mattered to me was they were songs that went against the grain of my upbringing and just about everything else around me. And the mere fact that it was skinhead made it worthwhile to me. The truth is that the political associations made skinhead even more appealing for me. Unlike the discovery of punk, which happened under the dubious tutelage of my brother—in essence yet another hand-me-down—the switch to skinhead was a premeditated effort on my part to establish my own identity and tastes. And while some of the kids who I despised at school might listen to Minor Threat or The Ramones—and then check Christgau’s Guide to Rock to make sure they were interpreting it all correctly—they weren’t going to be touching skinhead with a barge pole. In some respects, nothing toughened me more to the world than this music. When your daily musical intake as a teen makes references to “media zionists” it’s hard to be shocked by, much less take seriously, such attitudes and language when confronted by it in adult life. By hearing some of the worst attitudes the world has to offer about Judaism I’ve been able to confront things that some people spend their whole lives trying to avoid. Or was it this just one more instance of identifying with the oppressor? I have never answered that question to my own satisfaction.
Most of the skinheads I knew, whatever their background, really didn’t care one way or the other. There were plenty of parties I attended where people saw no problem with playing Desmond Dekker and then following him with a Nazi skinhead band. The few racist skinheads I knew had been racists before they had become skins. Other skinheads enjoyed the music because of its inherent shock value. Like many teenagers, these kids didn’t care about politics. They just loved the danger of the lyrics and the energy of the music. As with me, what mattered to them was that it was different from what everyone else listened to, and it angered and confounded adults.
Still, although I created a front that kept the world at arm’s length for a satisfactory amount of time, it wasn’t going to work for the long haul. Like punk, and to a lesser extent soft drugs and alcohol, skinhead did not fill the void. It got increasingly tiresome to explain “good skin vs. bad skin” to everyone who had watched Geraldo, Oprah or movies like Romper Stomper and, later, American History X. The potential for total paranoia was high. I was constantly explaining myself or fighting with one group or another. Many of us had merely wanted to contentedly drink beer and dance to the music of our choice, yet we were called upon to be spokesmen either for racial tolerance or stormtroopers of the extreme right.
The early 1990s were some of the worst times of my life. By then I was in my mid-twenties and the stakes were getting higher all the time. Friends of mine were dying of drug overdoses, losing themselves to alcohol or going to jail. Music and style seemed to have very little to do with it by now. I started reflecting about what was happening around me rather than simply reacting to it all the time. I needed something that encompassed that reflection and I found it from an unlikely source: Krishna.
I was first introduced to Krishna Consciousness in the late 1980s by a friend of mine who was a skinhead girl. She took me to the ISKCON temple on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston for a free vegetarian meal. Although I enjoyed the food, I had little interest in the religion initially. To my way of thinking religion and spirituality were still the preserve of those geeky yarmulke wearers.
In retrospect though, it makes sense that kids from a punk background would find emotional and philosophical sustenance through the practice of Krishna Consciousness. First of all, it was bizarre; it’s unlikely that conventional Western religion would have appealed to punks in the same way. Secondly—and more importantly—many of the people I’ve met during my travels through various scenes have been seekers of one kind or another. Very few people become interested in punk or any of its offshoots because they are satisfied with what they see around them, regardless of how popular the superficial fashions and watered down versions of the music have become in recent years. These people want more than what is offered, and while for many it may simply begin and end with green spiked hair, for others it is an entrance into any number of alternatives to mainstream America.
Third, I realized I didn’t have to reject every single thing that had been important to me in adolescence. Basic Krishna philosophies such as political (not necessarily personal, as the Bhagavad-Gita takes place on a battlefield) pacifism, anti-materialism and vegetarianism meshed very well with what some of my favorite punk—not skinhead—bands had been hectoring me about since I was in eighth grade. And its asceticism and warrior-spirit went well with what had I attracted me to the skinheads.
Finally, and perhaps unsurprisingly given all of these parallels, by the time I found Krishna Consciousness, there was already a Krishna-punk culture there waiting to great me. The introduction of this ancient form of religious worship to American punk kids can almost single-handedly be traced to one band, The Cro-Mags, a no-holds-barred hardcore band that came barreling out of New York’s Lower East Side in the mid 1980s. Fronted by a brace of tough New York skinheads, they represented an ideal package for me and many others: spiritual conviction garnished with street reality. I’d seen Krishnas chanting in Harvard Square years before The Cro-Mags, and merely rolled my eyes. But when I saw heavily tattooed skinheads reading books like The Nectar Of Devotion, I decided there might be something to it. Though the Cro-Mags imploded after a few years, others took up the idea of fusing Krishna with hardcore punk. The following decade saw a number of bands singing the praises of Krishna to the adolescent masses. This odd cultural pollination actually became quite popular, even faddish, at one point.
Krishna Consciousness gave me a spiritual framework I needed for the ideas and feelings that had developed within me over the years. In Krishna Consciousness, the world is viewed not only as inherently corrupt, but also transitory and illusory. The body is merely a temporary vehicle; our true selves are souls seeking a higher spiritual plane. People reach this plane, or “Godhead,” by chanting and following Krishna practices, such as vegetarianism. While it’s the duty of a human being to seek out this enlightenment, it’s also a given that humans are innately flawed and will stumble in the process. The thing to do, Krishna Consciousness says, is simply to keep trying harder.
Punk and skinhead gave me a chance to find myself in the material world. Hare Krishna was what I needed to transcend that world, and bring me onto a spiritual plane. From there I could rediscover all the things worthwhile in my background without the prejudices and blinders of youth. Although I never acted on the ideas and sentiment of the racist bands, I do sometimes regret ever listening to them and can only cite the pain and confusion of adolescence in my defense.
Surprisingly (or not), I’ve met a lot of fellow Jews in the Krishna community who happily identify themselves as such, and see no inherent contradiction. The writer Satyaraja Dasa (known to some as Steven Rosen, Brooklyn born and raised Jewish) expounds on this phenomenon eloquently in his book Heart of Devotion. He writes: “The Hare Krishna movement teaches that living beings are not Christians, Jews, Hindus or Muslims, for these are all bodily designations. A person is not his or her body but in fact a spiritual soul…however, if one finds the principles of sanatana-dharma in the esoteric teachings of Christianity, Islam or whatever, one should take it, without considering its point of origin or label.” Likewise, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prahbupada writes in The Matchless Gift: “One may learn about his relationship with God by any process….but in any case it must be learned. The purpose of this Krishna Consciousness is not to make Christians into Hindus…but to inform everyone that the duty of a human being is to understand his relationship with God.”
Now, it would have been unrealistic for me to suddenly go back to everything about my childhood that I had rejected. Nor have I come to a point where I’ve embraced the religious practices of being a Jew, because, to me, it would feel as if I was merely trying to make up for bad choices I made as an adolescent — and penance is not something I want to build my spiritual life on. Nevertheless, I have started to observe Passover, whose story of liberation from bondage is the first Jewish holiday that speaks to a personal value within me. And as much as Krishna Consciousness has resonated with me, I am too leery of any organized religion—a punk holdover—to fully immerse myself in it. (Sadly, the “official” Krishna organization, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness has been torn apart by many scandals similar to those that the Catholic Church has experienced.) So for now, I identify myself as a Jew, by both culture and heritage, who finds spiritual sustenance in Krishna practices of chanting, yoga and meditation. I don’t know what the future holds for my spiritual life, but I don’t need to.
Today, my young daughter often likes to sift through my CD collection, which incorporates Krishna Chants, songs from The Jewish Partisans of World War II and of course large amounts of punk and all its variants. It all makes sense to me. I hope one day it will make sense to her as well.