Schmekel, a Band Born as a Laugh

First published in The New York Times on November 25, 2011. Read the original here.

THE basement auditorium of the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side is a sincere space. Big, brown and bare, it suggests a school gym, a place for officially sanctioned fun — which made a recent concert by Schmekel, a raucous klezmer-core punk band made up of “100% trans Jews,” all the more surprising.

“Schmekel” means little penis in Yiddish, and is a play on the fact that all four members were born female but now identify themselves on the masculine side of the gender spectrum. It’s an appropriate name for a band that started as a laugh.

“I made a joke at a diner about how it’d be funny if there were an all-transmasculine band called Schmekel that was all Jews,” said Lucian Kahn, 29, a guitarist and vocalist.

On the spot, Nogga Schwartz, a bassist, and Ricky Riot, keyboardist and vocalist, both 26, joined up. Within a few weeks they had found a drummer, Simcha Halpert-Hanson, also 26.

The wry and slightly naughty name is part of the band’s hallmark style, which is earnest without being innocent, and funny without being ironic. Their influences include Frank Zappa and Mel Brooks, and their lyrics — about subjects ranging from Dumpster-diving to Jewish religious ceremonies — are personal, political and pointed.

The music itself merges traditional klezmer scales and rhythms with the aggressive energy of early gay punk bands likePansy Division.

If the musical satirist Tom Lehrer were to write a hard-core anthem about sex reassignment surgery, with a driving guitar lick, a “Hava Nagila” breakdown and a keyboard line lifted from Super Mario Brothers, it might approximate the Schmekel sound.

In the year and a half they have been together, the four band members have performed for audiences around New York City: gay, straight, Jewish and gentile. They recently finished recording an independent album, “Queers on Rye,” and they embarked this month on a small tour of colleges in the Northeast. They have garnered attention from general-interest publications like New York magazine, as well as identity-based outlets like HomogroundThe Jewish Daily Forward andJewcy.

“I don’t know if Schmekel could have existed 15 years ago,” said Sarah-Kay Lacks, 33, senior director of institutional programs at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. To her, the band members are emblematic of a sea change in mainstream Judaism.

“What has become so particularly amazing now is all of the places you get to layer your identity,” she said. To her mind, people used to have to choose a single broad-stroke identifier, as though they were characters from an ’80s movie: nerd, jock, Jew or trans. Now, Ms. Lacks said, more and more young people are unwilling to leave any of their identities behind to fit into regular Jewish space.

“The Venn diagram on musical, Yiddish and queer leads to a very small shaded area, but they live in it,” Ms. Lacks said. “This is à la carte Judaism. Or you could do a different frame, and it’s à la carte queerdom.”

But while the freedom to express multiple identities simultaneously in conventional contexts may be a recent phenomenon, the band is quick to point out that such complexities have existed for millenniums.

“There are six recognized genders in the Talmud,” said Mr. Schwartz, who was raised, in his words, “conservadox.”

These include the standard two with which we’re all familiar, and four more for others including eunuchs and people who are raised as girls but develop male characteristics at puberty.

When Mr. Schwartz started to prepare for his bat mitzvah, he began questioning everything from his religion to his gender, and he sought support from his temple. “My rabbi sat down with me and we had many conversations,” Mr. Schwartz said.

The rabbi told him that his soul was “probably a more masculine one,” and that he had to “live in the female experience to learn both sides of the coin.”

That, in Mr. Schwartz’s view, is what Judaism is all about. “We’re supposed to better ourselves as human beings, not as male or female,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Indeed, for all the band’s irreverence, the foursome is serious about Judaism. Mr. Riot wears a skullcap, was born in Israel and grew up in Fair Lawn, N.J., in a modern Orthodox community. Mr. Kahn identifies as an atheist but holds a master’s degree in religious history from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. And Simcha Halpert-Hanson (who prefers not to be identified with gendered honorifics or pronouns) grew up in the Reform movement but has always been drawn to a stricter interpretation of Judaism.

In the end, it may be their respect for and knowledge of their history that makes the band groundbreaking. They are not fractious rebels storming the castle of traditional faith, though they are fierce critics of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in organized Jewish life. They see themselves as grounded in a strong Judaic tradition, even if the rest of the world doesn’t — yet. But they are reaching out, and the mainstream is reaching back.

As they finished their set at the Jewish Community Center’s Halloween show, they made a smooth transition from an original song, “Surgical Drains,” to “Hava Nagila.” As one, the crowd joined hands and began to dance the hora. Androgynous individuals in butterfly costumes and women in traditional Orthodox dress whirled joyfully through the auditorium, a perfect vision of the world as seen through Schmekel’s eyes.