Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Brooklyn's hipster Hasidim try on a new fringe 

Cholent is the Saturday food of the Jews, that re-heated, over-filling stew packed with beans and meat and beloved for Sabbath lunch because it can be cooked before sundown on Friday and kept simmering for hours on end.

For nearly a decade, however, on the fringes of New York's Orthodox Jewish society, cholent has also been the name for a subversive kind of party, one that attracts eccentric Jewish artists looking to add a dash of modernity to their committed Jewish lives.
You could say they want to have their cholent and eat it, too.

The cholent parties were founded by a diverse handful of Orthodox exiles: newly found agnostics, pot-smoking Haredim, and any other Torah-fearing faithfuls who had somehow deviated from the prescribed norm.

Call it a safe space, or a hiding spot. Nowadays, the adherents of these drop-in parties call themselves X-O's, shorthand for "ex-Orthodox." On Thursday nights, writes party founder Yitzhak Schonfeld on the website neohasid.org, the X-O's trundle up to a designated meeting place and "share news, wounds, nigunim, and fun. It's a place of open welcome, no judgment, and experimentation."

Cholent parties were originally served up for Orthodox Jews who found themselves grappling with questions of faith and adherence. "Some of them simply didn't emotionally connect with the place they grew up in, and some were actually quite religious," Schonfeld told Haaretz. The organization grew out of another group, Corporate Raiders, described on neohasid.org as "a business in the heart of Borough Park that kept its doors open to all hours for the benefit of Hasidim who still lived physically in the Haredi community but whose hearts or beliefs had moved elsewhere."

Today, Cholent gatherings are held in lower Manhattan on Thursday nights. And eight years after their founding, the picture is more diverse. "Over time, people from secular backgrounds began coming and some people who weren't even Jewish," Schonfeld explains. "Today, more secular Jews come than religious ones."

They might have stayed under the wire were it not for a new documentary, "Punk Jews," from Adon Olam Productions. The film premiered this month in Manhattan and is hoping for a wider release soon.

Directed by Jesse Zook Mann and produced by Evan Klein, the film is about New York's Jewish artists: those chosen creative who tackle faith and fantasy; chastity and creativity.

The film, the duo says, exposes an underground Jewish community of which the cholent parties are just a part. "From Hasidic punk rockers to Yiddish street performers to African-American Jewish activists, 'Punk Jews' shows an emerging movement in New York City of Jews asserting their Jewish identity, defying the norm, and doing so at any cost," they write on the film's website.

"Punk Jews" explores an emerging subculture among New York City Hasidim, a place where the subversive is encouraged and conformity is no longer king.

The title, says Zook Mann, made sense. "Punk is a rock and roll movement with a do-it-yourself philosophy. In punk rock, artists don't work with corporations or recognized institutions," he says. "They simply make their art in their backyard, in a garage, in their homes. The idea of the Jews in the film is similar and focuses on the feeling of rebellion and spiritual independence."

Artist Elke Reva-Sudin, a graphic designer who presents a series of her paintings, "Hipsters and Hasids," in the film, recognizes that cholent parties are just the tip of this iceberg.

"The phenomenon of punk Jews is much broader and more widespread than the cholent parties," says Reva-Sudin, who is also the wife of "Punk Jews" co-producer Saul Sudin. "Hipsters and Hasids" shows the similarities between the Brooklyn hipsters of who live in northern Williamsburg and the Hasidim who live in the southern part of the neighborhood.

In Williamsburg, where skinny-jean-wearing hipsters and black-hat-donning Hasidim live side-by-side, there is more that unites than divides, she says.


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