The Jewish High Holy Days take place over the course of 10 days in early fall, in between Rosh Hashanah, the New Year on the Hebrew calendar (this year, it was September 29), and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On Rosh Hashanah, we Semites eat a lot " especially sweet things, for a sweet year " and on Yom Kippur, we don't eat at all, spending the period from sundown to sundown ruminating, atoning for things we might not have done right over the past year and praying. Rosh Hashanah is celebratory. Yom Kippur is deeply reflective, and the days in between always seem heightened with an intensified awareness of what it is to be alive.
The Shondes, a Brooklyn-based punk rock outfit whose Judaism is a strong part of its identity, are spending the High Holy Days on tour, winding up in New Orleans the night before Yom Kippur begins " which seems appropriate.
To get a sense of who the Shondes are, it'll help to learn a little Yiddish. The word 'shonde" " as my grandmother pronounced it, 'SHAHN-duh" " literally translates as 'a shame." Colloquially, it always seemed to me to imply a big, Jewish shame, used in sentences like, 'Dr. Goldstein left his wife for the Catholic dental hygienist. It was a shonde." Like Riot Grrls of yore defiantly claiming labels like 'slut" and 'bitch," the Shondes' nomenclature is obviously tongue-in-cheek " and in the same way (and in the best Talmudic tradition) invites us to think more about the layered meaning of the label.
Jewish rockers are a dime a dozen (a bargain!) " a wonderful and defunct fanzine from the Shondes' home turf, Plotz, actually used to catalogue them in a regular feature called 'Out the Jew." Gene Simmons, Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators and the Beastie Boys are all members of the tribe. (But not Adam Horovitz's wife, Kathleen Hanna. That nice Ad Rock married that shiksa girl from Le Tigre a shonde.) Few of those artists actually incorporated their Judaism into their music, but the Shondes do in spades, and even more so, they bring in their political activism. The band last hit New Orleans in July 2006 on its first national tour, playing a benefit for health-care outreach to the uninsured, and in the Jewish (and punk rock) tradition of conscious living, questioning and philosophical reflection, the members' feminism, activism and political consciousness inflects their art.
'There's certainly something about questioning, and especially questioning tradition and power structures in both of those traditions (Judaism and punk rock), and that is certainly something we try to do," violinist Eli Oberman says. 'And there's a personally relevant metaphor for our own political action and commitment to taking risks. There's a long and vibrant history of queers and feminists engaging with Judaism, cherishing old traditions and making new meanings in community."
Above and beyond the identity politics the Shondes navigate with sly, smart ease and wit, these Brooklynites do rock. The three-year-old group, which counts Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, Bruce Springsteen and Jascha Heifetz among its influences, fuses elements of classical and traditional Jewish music " violin stands front and center, with otherwise traditional rock instrumentation " with post-structural, fractured indie rock and the rawness of '90s girl-punk. The moody drama and surging energy of its sound has drawn comparisons to Patti Smith's unbridled punk emotion as well as feminist rock originators and inheritors like the Raincoats and Sleater-Kinney. The Shondes' chops are powerful: songs can be immaculately structured and melodic, then torn down with raw, urgent energy, distortion and howls, then snapped back to attention. They are not too controlled, not out of control, and never lacking full-speed-ahead energy and conviction. The band's January release, The Red Sea (self-released), is a tsunami of twisted, orchestral punk with enough harnessed force to " yes " part the waters and then some. ('We felt like it was a really good metaphor," Oberman says. 'There's one song on the album, "At The Water,' about the story in Torah of how the sea parted and the Jews became free. And the story was that only after the Jews had gone as far as they could by themselves did the miracle happen.") The year 5769 is upon us; who better to ring it in? L'shana tovah.
The Shondes' scheduled show at the Dragon's Den was canceled as of press time. The band will play Tuesday, Oct. 7, at another location. Check www.myspace.com/theshondes for details.
Readers can contact Alison Fensterstock at firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Shondes will rock the High Holy Days in New Orleans.