B’Nai Mitzvah and Bestowed Adulthood: Adolescents Getting Into Punk as Men

To signify that they are now adult members of the Jewish community, boys have a bar mitzvah at age 13 (and girls have a bat mitzvah as early as 12). This bestowal of adulthood happens around the same time (or shortly before) many adolescents get into punk rock. It could be inspiring at that age to think that one is now an empowered adult who really could change the world.

It would be far-fetched to say that b’nai mitzvah (the plural of bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah) caused such empowerment. However, the feeling that one was no longer a child—and/or various practical elements—did help guide some key Jewish figures who got involved with punk rock (and music that inspired or was inspired by punk rock).

Jason Diamond, who later formed the bands Fear of a Blue Planet and Shabbos Bloody Shabbos, learned about “how rebellious Jews have always been” in preparation for his bar mitzvah. In his bar mitzvah speech, Diamond talked about his great-grandfather, who had been a labor activist. “I just became interested in people who challenged not just big activist-type things, but little things—everyday revolutionary ideas and just being better to people,” recalled Diamond. He became, as he put it, more “anti-authoritarian.” Diamond said, “The bar mitzvah opened that up a little bit.” Within a year of his bar mitzvah, he identified as a punk. 

The bar mitzvah experience enabled some future musicians to purchase/receive instruments or otherwise get involved with punk rock (and music that inspired or was inspired by punk rock):

  • In his new biography of Lou Reed (Dirty Blvd.), Aidan Levy noted that once Reed was “a man in the eyes of the synagogue, his parents reluctantly agreed to indulge him when he began begging for a guitar.” Reed got an acoustic guitar and started taking lessons.
  • When his mother put in $100 for a $350 drum-set, Joey Ramone of the Ramones paid the rest using the money he had gotten for his bar mitzvah. (Joey Ramone was known as the singer of the Ramones, but he was initially the drummer.)
  • The Stern brothers, who played in the band Youth Brigade, started BYO Records and put out the label’s first release with money they had received for their b’nai mitzvah.
  • Hillel Slovak’s 13th birthday party (not a bar mitzvah per se) brought him closer to future Red Hot Chili Peppers bandmate Jack Irons. As a present from his uncle for his 13th birthday, Slovak received his first guitar.
  • Stephen Perkins of Jane’s Addiction bought his first drum-set with his bar mitzvah money.
  • Within a few months of his bar mitzvah, Steve “Gangsta Rabbi” Lieberman used up the money he had received to purchase a bass and an amp.

Over the course of my research for Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, these stories kept popping up. There wasn’t enough of a cause-and-effect relationship to put them in the book under the same banner, but they were more than just an isolated incident.

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