Not Dead

Both Jewish culture and punk have faced frequent claims that they are dead. Both have showed strong resistance against naysayers who make those claims.

There have long been predictions of the demise of the Jewish people and their culture. Klezmer music was presumed dead until its revival, which began in the 1970s. At many points in recent decades, people have feared the loss of Yiddish and the Eastern European Jewish culture it anchored. The number of Yiddish speakers has dwindled, especially outside Hasidic circles.

Daniel Kahn (of the “Radical Yiddish Punkfolk Cabaret” group Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird) has fought to keep secular Yiddish culture alive. According to Kahn, his allies in this battle are “few and far between.” They “are large for a family” but “small for a culture,” he said.

“When people tell me that Yiddish is dead, I tell them, it’s not dead. It’s just lonely,” Kahn explained. “It’s got so much to say, and no one’s listening.”

For Kahn, the retort to claims of death is showing people just how alive—and vibrant—Yiddish and klezmer are. “Yiddish is no more dead than punk is,” he said.

Rumors of the death of punk date back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly in the U.K. Ever since, there has been recurring debate about whether punk was dead—and whether later punk bands were authentically punk. In 1981, a U.K. band called the Exploited released a song called “Punks [sic] Not Dead.” The slogan became a longstanding rallying cry for punks.

The transgender Jewish punk band Schmekel addressed the “punk is dead” topic in its song “FTM at the DMV.” The lyrics discussed how five relatives, a rabbi, a cantor, and a mohel were “sittin’ shiva ’cuz punk is dead.” Those lyrics were originally intended for the unreleased song “Sittin’ Shiva ’Cuz Punk Is Dead.”

Schmekel singer/guitarist Lucian Kahn (no relation to Daniel Kahn) explained that the band was “push[ing] back” against the “punk is dead” notion by writing a punk song proving it was alive. Plus, he said, the song was about “enjoying the absurd image of a bunch of people … mourning the death of punk in this very Jewish way.”

Both Jewish culture and punk are not dead. They share a persistent march to live on despite claims that they are.

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