Anti-establishment Punk culture and Jewish renewal go hand-in-hand for Evan Kleinman, the Emmy Award nominated founder of Adon Olam Productions and producer of two recently wrapped documentaries that explore the breadth of Jewish identity in the new millennium. Kleinman began work on his two new documentaries, We Are Still Here and Punk Jews at about the same time. The former film debuted at the Big Apple Film Festival in November of 2011. The already widely publicized Punk Jews will also “make a big splash in 2012.”
A collaboration between Kleinman and his current film crew that consists of the Emmy Award winning director and cinematographer, Jesse Zook Mann, co-producer Saul Sudin, and editor and co-producer, Alex Emanuele, “Punk Jews basically explores the diversity and pluralism and many different interpretations of Judaism that people don’t usually see, and people don’t usually know about.” explained Kleinman. The documentary reveals the story behind a Jewish orthodox counter-culture movement in New York City based on the amalgamation of the Punk culture which emerged in the 1970s and the Hassidic thought and lifestyle initially born in eighteenth century Eastern Europe. Both graduates of Ithaca College in New York, Kleinman explained, “Jesse and I met in college and worked together at NBC. We talked a lot about Jewish identity. The Jewish psyche is a very conflicting thing.” explained Mr. Kleinman, “Questions and exploration are intrinsic to Judaism once you go under the layers of Jewish institutions. Jews and non-Jews usually do not equate Punk with Judaism.” however, Kleinman does. “Studying the Talmud is an art itself,” he told me on the telephone last month, “and this is similar to how we came up with the ideas of exploring the scene in New York. Jesse and I decided that it was a story that must be told.”
I had a chance to catch both of the films and they rock! First I watched Punk Jews.
From interviewing and filming performances by Moshiach Oi, a group that promises to bring the Messiah into the material world via their music, influenced by 70s punk-rock, to an activist who seeks to clean-up a violent and abusive ring in a Hassidic community in New York, the films covers a broad gamut of spiritual renewal and constructing a Jewish public-sphere in New York City. Punk Jews also tells the story of Cholent, an underground organization – named after the popular Shabbat dish – of all Jews from all over the demographic map who commune sporadically in an unannounced location to celebrate diversity and Jewish identity. Cholent, according to its portrayal in Punk Jews is especially geared for Jews from ultra-Orthodox communities who are seeking to step out into modernity and into a less stringent world of religious observation. Punk Jews is a collage of sorts made from the diverse and the bizarre in the New York Jewish underground, from a Jewish-Yogi grandma performance artist, to a Shabbat spent with Y-Love the black Jewish rapper, and finally, Sukkos Mob, a modern day Yiddish theatre troupe who performs on the street during the holiday for which the troupe is named. The final product of Punk Jews is an hour-long feature documentary. “It started out as a feature film but had to be curtailed because we weren’t getting funded by Jewish institutions.” explained Mr. Kleinman. An instant classic, the film is being submitted to festivals currently and will debut at a time and place in 2012, still to be announced.
Kleinman’s other project of 2012 is a solo project called We Are Still Here, which began filming last year before filming for Punk Jews was commenced. We Are Still Here is a heartbreaking documentary about the experience of being the grandson of Holocaust survivors, and the experience of his grandparents, Polish immigrants who suffered through work and concentration camps. In the film, Kleinman and his family of four visit Poland to place a headstone and say Kaddish for Evan’s great uncle, Leib Kleinman, who was murdered by Nazis in the town of Sedziszow. Evan says the premise of the film, the journey to Sedziszow in Poland “gives our family closure.” And at the same time it “opens up people’s minds to new ways that they can find closure [to the wounds of the Holocaust].”
When asked how one filmmaker goes from such a personal story of the Holocaust to Punk Jews, a counter-culture documentary, and in just one year, Kleinman said that “In my own journey those are the two strongest forces I have grappled with…” He is referring to Jewish renewal and identifying with ancient Jewish culture and the pain of descending from a family cut down by the Nazis. “We’re almost at a crossroads, for we are the last generation to know holocaust survivors.” he explained, “This was a chance to explore those feelings.” Whereas Punk Jews is intended as a means to “inspire people, to give them a way to explore their Jewish identity” Kleinman explained that “the main goal” for We Are Still Here is “to show it to students.” so that the next generation can know what happened to Jews in Europe during World War II. There are “endless lessons you can learn from the Holocaust.” The documentary has been screened where he went to school at the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew day school in New York. “Upcoming screenings” he told me “will be at the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival, Rockland County Jewish Film Festival, and Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival.”