At age 6, he was a budding yeshiva student, in white shirt and black hat, with little contact outside the Orthodox Jewish world. At 16, he discovered some things he liked better, punk rock and drugs: marijuana, LSD, eventually crack and heroin. At 26, on the Thursday before the holiday of Purim last month, he was back among the faithful, sort of: side curls flailing, knees jackknifing up around his torso, leaping, crouching, shouting a Scriptural message from the Book of Ramones: “Avraham was a punk rocker.”
It was a little after midnight at the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center in Kensington, Brooklyn, and the crowd in a narrow, fluorescent-lighted side room watched Yishai Romanoff, now the singer for the band, Moshiach Oi!, in varying states of catharsis and confusion. As always at this weekly gathering, it was a mixed lot, at odd angles to Orthodox Judaism. Some in the audience were refugees, or “X-O’s”; others were formerly secular Jews wanting in.
A few slammed shoulders with one another and with Mr. Romanoff, thrilled to do in an Orthodox synagogue what they had done only in trashy rock locales. “My crew’s on fire for Hashem,” Mr. Romanoff shouted, using a Hebrew reference to God. The drummer, Pesach Alpert, a recent convert to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, kept up a train wreck behind him. “I pray to you, me and my minyan of men,” Mr. Romanoff sang.
The band and the weekly Thursday night gathering, known as Chulent, both appear in a new documentary film called “Punk Jews,” about fringe strands that have emerged within New York’s Orthodox community. The movie, which is scheduled for release on DVD this summer, examines loose bits of subculture inside what is often seen as an insular, rule-oriented cloister. To be a hard-core punk band chanting, “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman,” the song of global healing for an obscure branch of Hasidism, is to be something beyond a square peg in a round hole. It is to give up the idea of fitting in altogether. Even at Chulent their din divides.
“It’s very amusing to me to see the looks on people’s faces,” Mr. Romanoff said, wearing a long beard and a skullcap with the “Na Nach” phrase embroidered in Hebrew around the edge. “Most religious Jews have never seen anything like this, so they have no idea what’s going on.”
Yet he saw no contradiction between his music and his submission to his faith. “To me, Judaism is like punk rock,” he said. “Real Judaism is very in your face. The world is chasing after desires for money and sex and drugs and materialism, and Judaism is the opposite. Judaism is like, this world is nothing. This world is only to serve God and bring light and redemption. To me, that’s very punk rock.”