Like anxiety and kvetching, food has always been a huge part of the Jewish experience. Dishes like matzo and gefilte fish have always reminded me of sitting around my grandmother's massive dining room table with my extended family, patiently waiting until the endless prayers would end so we could start eating…
Until recently. In addition to being a Jew, I consider myself a punk savant of sorts—I once even trafficked drugs for NOFX singer Fat Mike. But I've only recently learned of a trio of punk acts who used some of these emblematic Jewish foods in their live shows, like a PG version of GG Allin.
The interesting thing about Yidcore, Gefilte Fuck, and Jewdriver is the fact they all sprung up independently of each other. "There was no global Jewish scene or subgenre because most of these bands were operating as part of [their] local punk scene[s]," Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt!: Jews And Punks (and of the article from Jewish culture magazine Forward that piqued my interest in these bands) explains. "Because these bands operated in different places over different points of time… one act's idea might be very similar to another one's, but they didn't inspire each other."
In that article, Croland describes a Hanukkah tour in 2006 where Yidcore and Jewdriver played together at infamous punk club 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, California. (Jewdriver formed in Oakland in 1994 and covered the neo-nazi punk act Skrewdriver, but changed titles like "Boots and Braces" to "Boots and Bagels.") As Croland recalls, "Jewdriver passed out bagels, and they were thrown during Yidcore's set, and there was a moment of [Yidcore singer] Bram [Presser] throwing bagels back and forth at the crowd and really getting lost in the fun of it."
Yidcore were an Australian punk band with album titles such as They Tried To Kill Us. They Failed. Let's Eat! And The Hummusexual EP who managed to share stages with well-known punk acts like NOFX and Useless ID during their existence from 1998 to 2010.
"Yidcore was basically a stupid university joke that got out of hand," Presser—who believes he brought the bagels to the aforementioned Gilman Street show—told me over the phone. "I think we were looking at ways to poke fun or have fun with all of the great sacred cows of Judaism, and since it's a very food-focused religion and I'm a fat guy, I just used to like to eat onstage," he explains. "It started with us just giving out food, and then I began to smear food all over myself and do with it whatever came naturally," he adds with a laugh.
"I think that really spoke to the way that Jewish foods are representative of Jewish culture in a fun way that people can feel good about," Croland says about the bands' use of food. "There are obviously many negative topics to talk about in Judaism—we don't want to talk about fasting on Yom Kippur if we're trying to have a good time—but throwing bagels around made it fun, and was an extension of what these bands were already doing in their shtick and in their lyrics.
"What bands like Yidcore, Gefilte Fuck, and Jewdriver were trying to do in their different ways was use Jewish cultural references points in way that's familiar to the crowds regardless of religion, since a lot of these punk shows aren't taking place in a specifically Jewish [venue]," he adds.
Yidcore also implemented something called "shofar shots" which saw the band pouring full bottles of Manischewitz kosher wine down a longhorn shofar—a ram's horn that's blown during synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—for brave concertgoers. "When we played with NOFX, [guitarist] Eric Melvin was the only one in the band who agreed to take a shofar shot," he recounts. "Fat Mike was like, 'Fuck off, there's no way that I'm touching that shit,' which was smart because if you smelled the shofar it smelled like rotting flesh, and we probably gave [people] food poisoning and other terrible bacterial infections."
Yidcore's live shows also featured chicken soup shots, pickle-eating contests and, maybe most notably, Presser's odd affinity for hummus.
"There was kind of this hummus theme, where at first I would stuff my face with it during the show and then it became this kind of primal, tribal thing where I'd pretty much strip naked and smear hummus all over myself while the band was just going nuts in the background," he recounts. "Looking back on it now as an adult, I think about all the food that I wasted and how my grandparents would have thought that was way worse than being a dirty punk."
Another time, the Yidcore frontman tried to make something called 'Inside Falafel' at a show in Israel, which saw him eating all of the individual ingredients for falafel, including dried powders, and then jumping up and down for a minute, trying to mix the contents together inside his stomach.
For Gefilte Fuck singer Howard Hallis, the group's live performances were an extension of what he was studying during the group's brief but prolific tenure from 1992 to 1993. "I was in art school at UCLA at the time, and into doing weird performance art with food, so the gefilte-fish-throwing was a natural result of all of these things," Hallis explains from his home in Anaheim, California. "Gefilte Fuck were intentionally trying to be funny, and sometimes bordered on being offensive, but it was all pretty innocent to be honest—even with the food throwing and swigging Manischewitz from the bottle," he continues.
"I guess you could say it was sort of a tribute to [traditional] Jewish songs, since we tried to keep the original melodies but changed their tempo to make them more palatable to the crowd. It exposed the audience to some traditional Hebrew songs that they may never have heard otherwise."
However, while the live shows were meant to be a celebration of Jewish culture, there were elements that didn't always translate to everyone in attendance. "I remember a show at CBGB where I ate the most disgusting amount of hummus, and after the show I was talking to this girl in the audience who was quite cute, and I remember her saying, 'You know I'd really like to hang out with you but, fuck, you stink, I'm not going anywhere near you!" Presser recalls.
Another time, the Yidcore frontman tried to make something called "Inside Falafel" at a show in Israel, which saw him eating all of the individual ingredients for falafel, including dried powders, and then jumping up and down for a minute, trying to mix the contents together inside his stomach. "As you may have guessed, I threw up everyone onstage. It was disgusting but it was really funny at the time," he recounts. "I look back on that instance in particular and I'm like, 'What was I thinking?'"
Unlike punk iconoclasts like GG Allin who would instigate and attack his crowds with bodily fluids and violence, these Jewish acts tried to use their more extreme antics as a way to bring the crowd together instead of sparking confrontation. They were good Jewish boys, after all. "It was scary to go to a GG Allin show because there being a very good chance you would get pelted with feces or assaulted," Hallis recounts. "GG was an influence, but a small one to be honest. I don't think tossing cold fish patties into a slam pit comes anywhere close to being as horrible as hurling poop and blood at people. And we would never have perpetuated violence toward anyone at our shows, especially women," he explains.
"If you Google me, you're going to find photos of me covered in hummus with a rubber chicken in front of me. And that is very much a part of my creative life."
This is an important distinction; what these bands did was exciting, but not quite taboo. So when Presser explains that Yidcore's following grew out of bootlegs of their material being passed around Jewish summer camps in America, it seems perfectly logical.
"Throughout history there are bands who put their Jewish identity front and center, and that's a separate conversation from throwing food around at shows, but it's still part of a conversation of being Jewish and being punk," Croland says.
"One of my favorite quotes in my book is from a woman who said, 'I can have green hair and a lip ring, and I'm also going to fast on Yom Kippur, and I'm not going to deny either of those things," Croland says when asked if there's a more serious message behind these bands' seemingly immature antics. "I kind of smile while reading that, because it resonates the fact that you can be a modern against-the-grain Jew but you're still Jewish at the end of the day, and these are people who try to make art out of it and put their identity front and center by having fun with it," he continues.
"Ultimately, the thing all of these bands have in common is the fact that they're still embracing their Jewish identity. I think using Jewish foods as part of a live show is one of the more sensationalized or fun examples of that and that's why I think people are still talking about these bands and these live shows decades later."
Despite the fact that Presser has moved on from Yidcore (his first novel is coming out later this year), he still embraces the chickpea-stained legacy of his band.
"First of all, you're not going to escape it, because if you Google me, you're going to find photos of me covered in hummus with a rubber chicken in front of me. And that is very much a part of my creative life," he explains. "When Michael's book came out, I listened to some of our albums for the first time in five years, and I'm still really proud of those songs."
There is still a world of Jewish punk bands well beyond Jewdriver, Gefilte Fuck, and Yidcore.
"I'm reminded of what my journalism professor taught me in college. He said if you see one thing as an example, that's kind of interesting; if you see two things that fit that pattern, then there is something going on there; and if you see three, that's a trend," Croland explains. "Jewdriver, Gefilte Fuck and Jewdriver are some of the greatest names I've worked with, but there are other Jewish bands who didn't throw food around, like Schmekel and Total Passover.
"Those bands did things their own way, but I think these three bands stood out because in addition to their food-centric performances, they made recordings, documented their music, and played a bunch of shows, and they deserve to be talked about because they mattered."
While my grandmother probably wouldn't approve of these band's antics, I think she would be happy to see me embracing the foods that she put so much love into during my formative years—as long as it didn't involve me staining her immaculately clean carpet.
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