Why aren’t books like these being written for Jews?

The books Dharma Punx and Hardcore Zen are real. I have seen them, flipped through both of them, and marveled at the way they were written. They are geared towards a specific demographic, those looking for something in Buddhism that fits into their lifestyle. Aside from reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Rabbi Akiva Tatz and David Gottleib, I don’t know much at all about Buddhism. I do know that these two authors and many within the non-Jewish religious publishing world realize that speaking a generation in their language is important when it comes to getting your message out there.

So, why aren’t books or e-books like these being written for the not-yet-observant Jewish Gen Xer and Millennials? There are, as I see it, two reasons.

  1. It’s exactly the same reason punk music isn’t popular in the Jewish music world. Any BT with a punk music background or FFB who is into punk would rather use their talent towards more “mainstream” music, rather than create any frum punk rock. Once you create something that sounds clearly like non-Jewish music, the odds are that those nice boys (and girls) who listen to it will want to check out the original sources of the music. So, in essence, the frum musician would be indirectly responsible for frum kids listening to non-Jewish music and no one wants to deal with that on Yom Kippur.
  2. They just haven’t been written, yet. They are probably in the hearts, minds and hard drives of slackers who “sold-out” in order to pay tuition for their kids to learn in yeshivos and day schools. When I use the term “sold-out”, what I mean is that they realized that they can be just as individualistic, independent, and iconoclastic without having to look that way externally. Many (and I’d like to include myself) haven’t given up any core values, they have just focused than punk energy into things like Torah, Avodah, G’milus Chassadim, family, work, and community.

Those involved in kiruv know that that Torah needs given over in a way that is customized for each generation. The success of both “campus kiruv” and Chabad on the university level is proof that you have to know how to market to your demographic. NCSY‘s initial success in the, in part, was due to their leadership realizing that teens had a tendency to rebel. They simply give teens the option of focusing their rebellion against the prevailing culture of the 1960 and towards Torah u’Mitzvos. Chabad‘s success, on a family level, is partially due to having excellent pre-school programs and providing amazing day camp experiences for both children and their parents. Ohr Someach and Aish HaTorah have capitalized on providing opportunities for college-aged young adults to get a “yeshiva experience” that give them a taste for more learning.

These alternative sub-culture styled religious books, tend to take punk ethos in one hand and religion in the other and attempt to make the two fit together. With Yiddishkeit, the two can fit, but you have to be willing to accept that the priority is Torah.  The Torah is a constant.  It was around before the world was created and will always be here. I think there’s a whole segment of Jews that we are not reaching.  It’s not because their music is too loud, or their noise-reducing earbuds are to effective.  It is because we have yet to figure out a way to successfully communicate the idea that being mevatar yourself (withdrawing from your ego) or demonstrating bittul (nullifying your will) is probably the most hardcore punk thing there is.

25 thoughts on “Why aren’t books like these being written for Jews?

  1. Micha Berger

    I’m not sure the punk ethos fits a religion where everyone has to have a poseiq and ought to have a moreh derekh. Even if one’s rabbi knows how to accomodate individuality, there is a basic lack of autonomy in a system that expect you to turn to others to double-check that your spiritual decisions stand up to more objective scrutiny.

    Moreso, the US’s lauding of autonomy, the self-made person (the Wild West hero, the entrepeneur), “do your own thing” (the punk ethic’s granddad from the 60s), the “Me Generation” (its dysfunctional 70s father) and “live and let live” don’t really fit a religion of “kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh”.

    Second, as R’ Nathan Lopez Cardozo put it, Orthodox Judaism is like Bach, not Beethoven. The religious struggle is to find a way to use the structure, the rules of accepted music composition, to express one’s own heart. And Bach did this well, writing some of the most inspiring church music while working within the rigid world of Baroque music composition. Beethoven showed people the power of testing those rules, finding how far they can be stretched while still producing music, ending the Classical Era and beginning the Romantic.

    While finding a place for individualism, we are doing so in a culture that does not value autonomy nearly as much as the society around us does. I therefore think that “selling out” in the sense you write, external conformity, is necessary nor even a good thing. We have imposed conformity — we are all trying to follow halakhah, maintain minhagim, and participate in communal obligations like attending minyan, keeping up the biqur cholim, tomechei Shabbos, chevra qadisha and the miqvah.

    Clothing is one place where individual expression is NOT circumscribed, and not only does it influence how others see you, it shapes how you see yourself. If you want to find one’s individual and unique contribution to the eternal Jewish story, this is one place where reminding yourself you stand for your own variant on the theme is allowed. Not only allowed, but allows you to stand apart from groupthink.

    1. Micha Berger

      To add a PS after reading the non-satirical Frum Satire post “There’s no such thing as mainstream Judaism“:

      The yeshiva veldt had to adapt to a world where families and yeshivos scatter, but telecommunications means you can hear something from anywhere. This added an element to daas Torah in which one no longer follows their own rebbe or rosh yeshiva, but instead gather from the grapevine what “the gedolim hold”. It requires an illusion that “the gedolim” agree on everything.

      To some extent, people play “no true scotsman” to limit the gedolim who are too different than themselves. They aren’t “real” gedolim. And when that can’t be done, then the memory of the gadol is tailored.

      But altogether, this creates a drive toward conformity. You want religious guidance; you have no one guide; so you place trust that “our” path is the right one. The dominant one held by “all true gedolim”.

      So MO may overemphasize personal autonomy, the yeshiva world ends up under-emphasizing individualism.

    2. Neil Harris


      “I’m not sure the punk ethos fits a religion where everyone has to have a poseiq and ought to have a moreh derekh”- then it isn’t a surprise that I gravitated to Mussar with a touch of Breslov. While is leadership in Breslov chassidus, they are w/o a Rebbe, per Reb Nachman’s wishes.

    3. Micha Berger

      Lub is very clear on the difference between the rebbe and a mashpia, the latter being closer to what I meant by moreh derekh. This is someone with whom you have an ongoing relationship; something the LR couldn’t do with all his chassidim even before his histalqus. And without a rebbe, they continue having mashpi’im.

      Breslov doesn’t have something similar?

  2. Modya

    Having spent many years in a Buddhist community I see how easy it is for any culture or sub-culture to accept and adapt the Buddha’s teaching. The teachings by definition were maleable and meant to blend with the local culture. That’s why Tibetan Buddhism is so filled with avodah zara, while Thai Forest Tradition, Theravada Buddhism is largely devoid of anything avodah zara like (and why the Jewish renewal movement adopted vipasana-style meditation and branded it Jewish meditation 10-15 years ago).

    My kids are in a right of centre Jewish day school and I see clearly how small c conservative that whole community is (my community!). My daughter recently got braids in her hair, Caribbean style, and was told by the school to take them out because they didn’t present the type of image that the school wants to indoctrinate, sorry, I mean inculcate in the girls (my daughter kept the braids in at my insistence!). This one example isn’t meant to denigrate the school – it’s a great school and I recognize that there is no perfect, and at the same time everything is perfect. But we’re talking about one aspect in this blog, so that’s why I mentioned it.

    OK, so where do we get our PunkDhama or FunkTorah. I think it’s an uphill battle when dealing with a population intent on regressive conservatism.

    That being said, check out Urban Frum on Facebook – two women in Toronto, both BT’s who are striving to blend the coolness of gritty city living with frumkeit. It’s the only thing I know happening close to these two books you mention.


    1. Micha Berger

      As an educational policy… I’m not sure I would recommend the decision about braids. It may be better to maintain her confidence in the school, because it and her moros represent Torah to her, than it is to teach this particular lesson.

      We can talk about what happens when you teach your kid to be a non-conformist, but then they choose to non-conform in a non-Torah way. In retrospect, I think I wouldn’t explicitly teach non-conformity, and simply let them see from example that they don’t have to toe the line.

    2. Shmuel

      >>my daughter kept the braids in at my insistence!

      Not to step on your toes, but I think this comment speaks volumes about determining where the line between our personal issues and what is best for our children (or other significant others in our lives)lies.

      It becomes increasingly difficult to be counter-cultural when you are responsible for others’ well-being, in the holistic sense (spiritual, psychological, etc.). To some degree, the punk culture has a significant amount of egocentricity implicit in its lifestyle – something that dovetails rather nicely with eastern style religions that promote setting oneself aside from the world under the guise of some vague desire to become one with the world. Judaism is a social/communal structure in the sense that many imperatives are built around a familial, communal or societal context.

      And, when you impose your own views on another, what really sets you aside from the machine that your raging against?

    3. Modya

      what really sets you aside from the machine that your raging against?

      Honesty and integrity! Not blind adherence to some psuedo-law that is nothing more than fear clothed in frum clothes. Please take a look at the essay of Rav Wolbe on Frumkeit in the Alei Shur. He makes my point much more eloquently.

      I’m sounding harsh, but really, the whole issue, and I think what truly sets one (me) apart from the machine is a constant attempt at every moment to be authentic to what I believe Hashem wants me to be and not just conform to some group’s mostly static (regressive) approach to life. That requires a healthy and wise approach to life and so I agree with Reb Micha that you have to be super careful with raising kids. My daughter had no idea that this whole thing went on. It was between me and the school and she was in the dark.

      Finally, just to address one comment that is somewhat peripheral. Having spent 12 years in a Buddhist community, I understand how Jews can think that eastern religions provide for egocentricity while Judaism offers a communal religion that causes you to think of others. However, I believe that that view is from people on the outside of eastern religions. Inside, it is really not different than any other spiritual path that seeks truth through peaceful means. The image of a Buddhist is one sitting on a zafu in isolation. That is merely the daily practice ground for then taking the experience of sitting and applying the associated wisdom to the world around you.

    4. Micha Berger

      Mussar can pose that trap to the unwary… One can get so caught up perfecting your middos, that they forget what they’re trying to become perfect at! The Mussar of middos work is the Mussar of putting interpersonal mitzvos first. One is “merely” working on the capacity to produce, the other is our actually producing the “product” for which Hashem made us.

    5. Neil Harris

      While there isn’t anything wrong with being yourself, the odds are that those who are taking a “static approach to life” probably feel like they are being true to themselves, also.

      Regarding the braids, I see both sides. We want our kids to think for themselves and not follow the pack (when the pack is doing the WRONG thing). My oldest is only 13 and with him (and his two sisters) we have always emphasized “doing the right thing”. Sometimes that means going against the grain.

    6. Shmuel

      >>My daughter had no idea that this whole thing went on. It was between me and the school and she was in the dark.


      Modya, I’m sorry but I misinterpreted your earlier comment about your insistence, thinking that it was directed TOWARD your daughter, not FOR your daughter – my mistake.

      The RATM quip (and I meant it tongue in cheek) wasn’t aimed at you specifically, but rather a rhetorical question about giving over one’s values to those whom htey have some influence/responsibility. It’s a very difficult question that was brought up a few weeks ago on another fellow blog, and it’s one that won’t go away anytime soon Still, your answer was very good. Thanks!

      And I admit to being only superficially familiar with the eastern style religions; I defer to your knowledge concerning them, of course.

    1. Neil Harris

      I’ve lurked around Jewlicious since the site started. They were, at one time, the go-to for all things hip and Jewish. I still think it’s a good site and they, very much, captured a generation.

    2. josh

      I’ve also been around jewlicious for more than 10 years and it was really good for much of the 2000s. Since facebook picked up popularity, the comments have decreased dramatically and it’s hard to tell if it is still attracting readers. I also used to like jewschool, but that got way to radical and ‘progressive’.

    1. Micha Berger

      I found the article to sum up with “Orthodoxy has made it! We can now live lives of luxury, convenience and conspicuous consumption, and sill follow the Shulchan Arukh!” “Pas bemelach tokheil” or “Histapqus” Being willing to eat “just bread with salt” (Avos 6:4) or the middah of “frugality” are Jewish Values, last I checked.

      Everything that creates the cynicism that fuels punk culture.

      Of course, this is from the perspective of someone for whom shopping at Pomegranate wouldn’t be a choice.

      And with that caveat in mind… I wonder how much money is being poured into luxury when a more modest lifestyle would also support enjoying Shabbos while there is allegedly a tuition crisis going on. (At the very least, there should be a sign by each cashier: Warning! All credit slips are shared with the local scholarship committees.)

  3. Neil Harris

    This article is great and a serious kiddush Hahsem. It also is good ad for modern orthodoxy (as in the type of Jews that use electricity and indoor plumbing).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *