Guest Post: From Punk Rocker to Rabbi

The following guest post is by Rabbi Patrick. Rabbi Patrick is in Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk in Chapter 3, as the front man of CAN!!CAN, and Chapter 6, as the executive director of PunkTorah. Here he explains how lessons from being a touring punk rocker helped him as a rabbi.

Courtesy of Rabbi Patrick

Courtesy of Rabbi Patrick

Living in a Dodge conversion van was great preparation for being a rabbi. Seriously.

Mind you, I had no interest in being clergy at the time. I was the singer in several punk, garage rock and post-punk bands. My goal was to make music and get paid to do it. In my experience, it’s the latter that’s damn near impossible. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have any information on the occupational outlook for tattooed guys living on PBR and ramen noodles, but I suspect if they did, it would be lousy at best. Somewhere between punchcard computing and underwater basket weaving.

It is awfully funny how life prepares you to do things you never thought you would do. It took several odd career turns for me to wind up where I am: selling American primitive furniture, decorating Christmas trees at Home Depot, and blogging for respect and outrage. I even worked as a greeter at a coffee convention. All had their life lessons. But when I think back on the skills I need to be the rabbi for both a physical Jewish community and a virtual one, I keep coming back to the vans, trucks, and cars I called home as I crisscrossed America pursuing my own version of the American Dream.

While there are countless things I learned from my time on the road that helped to prepare me for what I do now, these three are the main points I’d like to drive home for the readers of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk.


It’s about the People

The music community often felt like an oxymoron. I recall that crushing feeling that 10 PM has come and whether you like it or not, there are no more people coming to your show in eastern Tennessee on a random Tuesday in December. No matter how long you delay getting on stage, God is not going to bring you a crowd of forty people desperate to dance, sing along, buy your merch, and give you a post-show makeout.

There is no scene at your show. There is no fan base for your sound or your record label. The music community is in hibernation on your big night. Actually, there is no community. It’s a damn, dirty lie and you fell for it. So you think to yourself, put down the guitars, grab a beer and lament your life’s choices. You should have gone into welding.

But if you’re smart, you don’t do that. You say to yourself: tough stuff, rock star. Grow up. Get on with it. It’s your turn to play. They are waiting. Don’t be a jerk.

So you play. You play for the five people in the bar. You play like it’s Madison Square Garden. You thank them with a sugary kindness that would give Pat Boone cavities. If they “woohoo” enough, you plan an encore. You play the same song twice if someone asks. Three times even.

You’re not in the music business, you fool. You are in the people business. Get over yourself and play. They showed up. You showed up. Do it.

Now, fast-forward to 2017. No more punk rock. Just a rabbi with a wife, two cats, and a bum leg due to an unfortunate illness.

Do I have nights where not a lot of people show up? Sure. But the difference between Poseur Rockstar Patrick and Rabbi Patrick is that I know now that God is not punishing me with a lack of butts in seats. Sometimes there just aren’t a lot of people at the “gig.” Life happens.

In the old days, I would tell myself that I just needed to play. Now I tell myself that I just need to pray.

Because frankly, it’s not about me. It’s about the people. You davven like you’re the Jewish Joel Osteen in front of millions. You give a sermon that inspires the very best in humanity, imagining angels trembling at your every word. You make sure to shake hands, give hugs, let people know they are loved and wanted. You’re sick? Behind on rent? No problem … we’ve got you covered.

It’s not BS. It’s true. Emet v’Emunah: truth and faith.

I believe in God. And I believe God believes in people. So that means that I need to believe in people, too. And I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to the worth and dignity of other people.

It’s about the people. Let them know you care. Don’t show up with a chip on your shoulder. Do the gig. Sing the songs. Do the set list. Get on with it.

It’s not about you. It’s about them.

But having said that…


Ignore People Who Hate You

I once played a show in Dalton, GA, in front of thirty teenagers. My band was a two-piece along the lines of The Kills or Sleigh Bells. Pretty cool stuff.

Apparently north Georgia’s teenage population was not desperately craving an Atlanta-based artsy electronic garage rock duo. We played less than one minute of our set, and everyone left. We played two more songs, then left as well. We had beer and French fries to celebrate our horrible failure.

Not everyone likes punk-rockabilly. Not everyone likes desert-rock–influenced indie bands. And post-punk garage rock? Yeah … not everyone likes that either. That didn’t stop me from working with three record labels, getting write-ups in some cool publications, meeting fascinating people and maturing from a kid who had very few friends and lived in his bedroom to someone who could get up in front of three hundred people without breaking a sweat.

People hate. Oh, well.

Look, there are a lot of reasons why people can dislike you or what you’re doing. You’re not religious enough. You’re too religious. You’re a Democrat/Republican/Libertarian/Vegetarian. You stopped liking their photos on Instagram. You had a particular perspective and it changed. It can be anything. Really, anything. I had someone decide that I was a complete waste of humanity because I stopped blogging. Are you reading this?! Someone hated me because I made a choice to do something else with my own time. Incredible.

While the future always gets better, the ubiquity of social media has made low-level hatred an art form unlike anything that has ever existed in human history. And often, the haters and the trolls are disenfranchised people who use technology to project their own emotional issues into the void. Their laptops hum with a sound that lures them into flame wars over nonsense. These aren’t the people who in the olden days would go to war against the non-believer. These are people who would sit in their hut and complain the whole time.

That’s life. Oh, well.

When you do something meaningful with your time, it makes haters less important. So I ignore them. Some people think you should learn from those who oppose you. Nah, that’s a waste of time. People who care and have legitimate concerns? That’s a different story. But like the Serenity Prayer says, we should have “the serenity to accept the things [we] cannot change, courage to change the things [we] can, and wisdom to know the difference.”


Don’t Forget about the T-Shirts

I loved the merch booth. Not because of the money (though that is awfully nice when you’re trying to make enough money for gas to the next lousy city), but because it’s an opportunity to learn about people.

On stage, you don’t have a chance to connect with people one-on-one. The romanticism of the lead singer or the guitar hero who truly dives into the soul of their audience is really nonsense. You can’t know individuals unless you engage with them.

At a punk show, the often neglected merch booth is where bands hawk their shirts, records, buttons, and whatever else they have. Usually bands stink at this. You’ll see a few abused black and white stickers, possibly a gas can with a Sharpie marker sign saying “tips for gas money,” and a few plastic drink cups someone left on the table.

I care deeply about the merch booth.

When I toured, I tried to be the Punk Rock Walmart: low prices, guaranteed. Shirts, stickers, buttons, flyers, coloring books, zines, patches, kisses for a dollar … whatever I could sell, I sold it. (OK, legally and morally … don’t get any clever ideas!)

The merch booth is where people wander to after the set. I always lucked out by having cool bandmates who would let me jump off the stage and go right to the booth.

You get people’s email addresses. You ask them about other clubs in the area. Sometimes you ask for a place to stay. I even asked for food. Really. I would ask people for food if I had to.

The synagogue merch booth is not the sisterhood pop-up store. The merch booth of the shul is the oneg after services. You don’t have a right to your own time after services. You don’t get to eat the delicious brownies someone brought. You want dessert? Go to Dairy Queen afterwards.

The oneg is where you connect one-on-one. You ask the shul equivalent of punk show questions—only instead of asking for a place to sleep, you ask for opportunities to be a community with others. I’ve seen shy rabbis shirk away from the oneg. That’s a bad move, my friend. People want to talk to you. They want to ask questions. It’s a great time to rally your community around new folks. To let them know who you are and what you are about.

Frankly, I wish we could sell buttons and T-shirts after Shabbat services. It would be funny to see the reaction.


In Closing: Be Yourself, But Better

I’m not Orthodox. I thought I wanted to be, years ago. You can Google that and find some rather hilarious attempts at playing that role. I called Shabbat “Shabbos.” I said HaShem instead of God. Tzitzit and all.

I wanted to be a part of that world in some way, because I had told myself that those were the people who took things seriously. And boy was I serious.

The same was true in rock music. I tried to be Richard Hell-Iggy Pop-Jack White-Lou Reed. Rarely was I Patrick.

I heard people say that the best music was authentic. But guys in their teens playing ’70s prog rock music, white kids playing blues from the Depression … that’s not authentic. It’s creative, but it’s not authentic. As a label rep once told me, “you have to fake it until you become it.”

I don’t consider my time in the van a waste. Though I do wish Patrick had been there. You can’t fake it until you become it. And if you do, you lose yourself. No gig is worth that.

Older and wiser, I know now I don’t have to fake it to make it. In fact, the best thing is to be yourself as fully as possible. Be yourself, warts and all. But try to be the better version of yourself, not the lousy one.

Good religions are like that: they bring us to our authenticity, then help us become a slightly better version of who we really are. Bad Religion, not so much.

Now I want to listen to Bad Religion.

I wish you simcha v’shalom, joy and peace.

From your friendly, neighborhood tattooed rabbi.


Rabbi Patrick

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