Transmasculine punkers are the new Judaism

Not too long ago, when the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a supportive profile of a sex-positive sex-ed teacher, Rod Dreher wrote about the magazine's obsession "with sex and sexuality, and of course always, always, always from a progressive point of view." He listed some of the "sexual-liberationist" stories they'd done this year. The thing about these stories, though, is that they're frequently pretty good in what they do share. They just lack any skepticism at all. As I like to say, if you can't find contrary opinions on sexual-liberationist stories, you're just doing it wrong. To wit, about the supposedly devout Catholic who teaches kids sex positive stuff, I read someone saying “A grown man who is talking to kids about sex this way is usually called a pedophile. He’s giving them an induction ceremony, not an education."

I mean, it's not hard to get people talking about sex and saying really interesting and controversial things. Calling beloved teachers who are just trying to get kids to touch themselves and talk about their naughty bits mean names. You know how it goes. That's part of what makes it so fun to write about (says this former sex columnist).

In any case, here's another story in the mold, this time from the New York Times' regional section. It so closely approximates a parody of what critics of the Times say would make a perfect Times story, that I actually had to make sure the group profiled was real before I wrote about them. They are real! The piece is headlined "Schmekel, a Band Born as a Laugh."

THE basement auditorium of the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side is a sincere space. Big, brown and bare, it suggests a school gym, a place for officially sanctioned fun — which made a recent concert by Schmekel, a raucous klezmer-core punk band made up of “100% trans Jews,” all the more surprising.

"Schmekel” means little penis in Yiddish, and is a play on the fact that all four members were born female but now identify themselves on the masculine side of the gender spectrum. It’s an appropriate name for a band that started as a laugh.

Now, most bands with this level of popularity (when I checked their YouTube page tonight, their most watched video had only 1200 views -- and this after being featured in the New York Times) don't get much media coverage, much less in the Grey Lady. But how many trans Jew bands are there? I'd have profiled them, too. Still, I do wonder what the Times is missing in that genre of bands at this level of popularity.

Anyway, the article is an enjoyable read. We meet members Lucian Kahn, Ricky Riot, Simcha Halpert-Hanson and Nogga Schwartz. Religion is fully included in the story and their sound is described this way:

If the musical satirist Tom Lehrer were to write a hard-core anthem about sex reassignment surgery, with a driving guitar lick, a “Hava Nagila” breakdown and a keyboard line lifted from Super Mario Brothers, it might approximate the Schmekel sound.

When we meet Schmekel, they're playing at a JCC on Halloween night. The article includes some fun commentary on the meaning of it all. The senior director of institutional programs at the center says that the band members are emblematic of a sea change in mainstream Judaism:

“What has become so particularly amazing now is all of the places you get to layer your identity,” she said. To her mind, people used to have to choose a single broad-stroke identifier, as though they were characters from an ’80s movie: nerd, jock, Jew or trans. Now, Ms. Lacks said, more and more young people are unwilling to leave any of their identities behind to fit into regular Jewish space.

“The Venn diagram on musical, Yiddish and queer leads to a very small shaded area, but they live in it,” Ms. Lacks said. “This is à la carte Judaism. Or you could do a different frame, and it’s à la carte queerdom.”

The rest of the piece reads like promotional material for the band or what you might expect in a progressive Jewish publication. But with that high level of religious discussion. One of the members, who says he was raised "conservadox," says that there are six recognized genders in the Talmud:

These include the standard two with which we’re all familiar, and four more for others including eunuchs and people who are raised as girls but develop male characteristics at puberty.

When Mr. Schwartz started to prepare for his bat mitzvah, he began questioning everything from his religion to his gender, and he sought support from his temple. “My rabbi sat down with me and we had many conversations,” Mr. Schwartz said.

The rabbi told him that his soul was “probably a more masculine one,” and that he had to “live in the female experience to learn both sides of the coin.”

That, in Mr. Schwartz’s view, is what Judaism is all about. “We’re supposed to better ourselves as human beings, not as male or female,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Great anecdote to include. But it made me realize that while we hear from a rabbi second-hand and are presented this information as if there is uniform agreement that gender is unimportant in Judaism that there is precisely nothing in this story that indicates these views of Judaism might not be universal. Well, that's not true. Check out these paragraphs:

Indeed, for all the band’s irreverence, the foursome is serious about Judaism. Mr. Riot wears a skullcap, was born in Israel and grew up in Fair Lawn, N.J., in a modern Orthodox community. Mr. Kahn identifies as an atheist but holds a master’s degree in religious history from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. And Simcha Halpert-Hanson (who prefers not to be identified with gendered honorifics or pronouns) grew up in the Reform movement but has always been drawn to a stricter interpretation of Judaism.

In the end, it may be their respect for and knowledge of their history that makes the band groundbreaking. They are not fractious rebels storming the castle of traditional faith, though they are fierce critics of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in organized Jewish life. They see themselves as grounded in a strong Judaic tradition, even if the rest of the world doesn’t — yet. But they are reaching out, and the mainstream is reaching back.

Note the care with which Simcha Halpert-Hanson's preferences on "gendered honorifics or pronouns" are handled. I would have loved to see a similar level of care when it came to some other details. In order for the reader to assess these claims about the existence of irrational fear and misogyny in organized Jewish life, we need details. Who fears irrationally? How is that irrational fear manifested? In order to assess whether Schmekel is grounded in a strong Judaic tradition and that they are reaching out to the mainstream and the mainstream is reaching back to them, we need details.

Yes, it's a lovely story about an all-transmasculine Jewish band. If it's just about a fun band having fun, such a puffy approach is more than appropriate. But if we're going to make it about something much bigger than a handful of YouTube views and a college tour, the story needs to go ahead and embrace the challenge more fully.

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