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In the Recording Studio With Schmekel, the Transgender Jewish Punk Band

As they produce ‘The Whale That Ate Jonah,’ members dish about Chabad, circumcision, and the time they performed in an S&M dungeon

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Schmekel (left to right: Lucian Kahn, Nogga Schwartz, Ricky Riot, and Simcha Halpert-Hanson) records in Brooklyn on March 10, 2013. (Tracy Levy)
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The first time I encountered Schmekel—the all-transgender, all-Jewish klezmer-core punk band whose name means “little penis” in Yiddish—was during Hanukkah last year in a large Barnard auditorium that dwarfed the musicians and the two-dozen 20somethings who’d come to hear them play. Glaring lights illuminated a bunch of round tables arranged around a makeshift dance floor. Between songs, people were schmoozing, snacking on the stale cookies and chips that someone had laid out, and laughing at the jokes emanating from the band onstage. (“So, many of you know how I got the scars under my nipples, right?”)

Nobody was concerned with looking cool. Strangers greeted me with effusive hugs. Androgynously dressed folks in tropical-print shirts mingled with others wearing long, Orthodox-style skirts. A lone Hasid stood off to the side in a black coat and streimel. The crowd didn’t seem to fit into any kind of religious mainstream. And yet here these kids were at a Hanukkah show, a group of young queer Jews who could have abandoned their tradition but who instead were choosing to spend their Saturday night in a garishly lit auditorium—joining hands now, forming a circle now, dancing the hora.

If there was something cozy and earnest about the whole event, there was also something refreshingly subversive.

***

When I visited the band in March, Schmekel was busy recording its second album, The Whale That Ate Jonah, in the Brooklyn apartment of band member Nogga Schwartz. The place screamed Crown Heights: At the entrance, four bicycles lay propped against a wall of exposed brick. Stacked mason jars of beans and lentils lined the shelves, and empty beer bottles dotted the windowsill. Schwartz’s dog, Captain, wove around our legs, yapping playfully.

The recording studio, dubbed Fort Schmekel, was a tiny handmade space in the corner of the living room, barely big enough to fit the band’s musical equipment and its four members: guitarist and vocalist Lucian Kahn, keyboardist and vocalist Ricky Riot, drummer Simcha Halpert-Hanson, and bassist and vocalist Schwartz. “Our studio is made from cardboard,” Schwartz said with a laugh. He pointed out the wooden ladder leading up to a mattress above the studio, where he sleeps. This mattress has the dual advantage of lending the structure a certain treehouse feel and of soundproofing the recording space—just one example of how nothing goes to waste in the hands of this DIY, shoestring-budget band.

They were itching to start recording, so we squeezed into the studio. Guitars lined the wall and bunched wires hung from hooks on the ceiling. As everyone took up their instruments, Riot set up the software he uses to record tracks on his laptop. Every so often, he interrupted the music—which combines the loud, aggressive punk sound of Pansy Division with the klezmer scales of a typical bar mitzvah party—to issue instructions, but always in a cooperative, nonhierarchical tone. In fact, all their interactions were of this nature. When Kahn berated himself, saying, “I fucked up!” the others chimed in with “It’s OK!” and “You only made one little mistake.” In between takes, the laughter that filled the studio was punctuated by a slew of polite interjections: “Do you mind turning down your speakers?” “Watch out for that mic above your head!” “Could you please get me some water?”

When the band paused for a lunch of pizza and Coke, I took advantage of the opportunity to ask about their experiences as trans artists in the Jewish community. Despite the fact that their lyrics allude to the Torah and Talmud as frequently as they make reference to gentrification and dumpster diving, they’ve all said they’ve felt uncomfortable in the Jewish world, particularly in synagogue.

“I find Orthodox spaces barely bearable,” said Riot, who observes Shabbat, keeps kosher, and is pursuing a Master’s in Jewish education at Hebrew College. “I have to actively hide certain things about myself—and it’s just like, why would I do that?” Halpert-Hanson, who grew up Reform and pursued Jewish studies at the New School, added, “I feel generally alienated by the traditional synagogue structure. There’s a lot of anxiety to figuring out how someone’s going to read me, when more often than not they are cisgender”—that is, they identify as the gender they were assigned at birth—“and straight.”

Kahn’s experience with synagogue is “not great, not terrible.” An atheist, he finds traditional settings most inspiring but tends to disagree with all of the politics there. The more liberal settings are great politics-wise, but the aesthetics of their services leave him dissatisfied.

Schwartz, who is not observant (“I eat bacon on top of shrimp!”), started publicly transitioning in Chabad. Instead of showing up in dresses, he began to show up in suits. “I have a lot of problems with [Chabad’s] Orthodoxy and patriarchy and Israel politics—but it was the first place that without question made space for me,” he said. “That community seems slower to judge, at least outwardly, because they’re about bringing everybody back to Judaism.” During services, he didn’t stand with the men or the women, but off in a corner. His rabbi challenged his decision to transition, but expressed support when he explained that “I feel like I’m going to die if I don’t do this.” The rabbi said that if Schwartz was serious about Judaism and transitioning, he had to obey all of the Torah’s 613 commandments—including circumcision. That conversation later inspired “The Mohel Song” on Schmekel’s first album Queers on Rye.

Schmekel’s new album, released this month, also draws on the band’s synagogue experiences. Take these characteristically wry lyrics, from the song “Shomer Negiyah”:

There’s a party at the synagogue for Simchat Torah
Everybody is dancing the hora
I find myself a spot next to Shlomo
All this handholding is a little bro-mo
Oy vey! if they find out that I’m trans
They don’t recognize me with tzitzis and pants
Even though I have a beard and spectacles
They won’t hold my hand if I don’t have a schmeckticle

Joy Ladin, a transgender author and English professor at Yeshiva University, was not surprised to hear that the band members have often felt uncomfortable at synagogue—or that Schwartz did feel comfortable at Chabad. “Chabad has the ‘no Jew left behind’ rule,” Ladin said. “In that respect, I think they are indeed pointing the way to the future, for everybody.” She has observed a counterintuitive phenomenon whereby many synagogues that are definitionally progressive—say, Reform synagogues—assume they are therefore automatically perceived as trans-inclusive, but it’s this very assumption that blinds them to their shortcomings. “You can’t really make your community inclusive unless you’re willing to talk about and eventually change things to reflect the needs of all members,” Ladin said, citing gender-neutral bathrooms as an example of one such desirable change.

Emily Aviva Kapor, the only out transgender female rabbi, agreed with Ladin that trans Jews are raising “very nuanced, complicated questions, and you can’t hand-wave them away by saying, well, of course we’re inclusive!” Trans Jews are forcing leaders to reevaluate how we determine whether a person is considered male or female within the framework of Jewish law. “Let’s say we have a women’s mikveh: Would a trans woman be welcome there who has not had genital surgery? What if she can’t afford it?” Kapor asked, adding that we still lack rabbinic responses that are empowering of trans people—though she herself is working to rectify that. “We need to create liturgy that is affirmative of trans people, and ritual that celebrates experiences in the lives of trans people. For instance, what’s the blessing for when you take your hormones every day?”

Ladin and Kapor both believe Schmekel—a band that bills itself as “100% trans Jews”—is laughing with the tradition in a way that helps advance that process, creating a world where one can be 100 percent trans and 100percent Jewish without fearing that those identities are mutually exclusive.

It’s a belief that was borne out by a passing comment Halpert-Hanson made right before I left the studio, when I mentioned the Barnard show where I’d first seen them play. Calling that concert “very communal and cute,” the drummer noted that the band has played a wide range of venues, “from an actual S&M dungeon to right in front of an ark in Yale’s Hillel.” Laughing, Kahn interjected that somewhere between an S&M dungeon and a place of worship was probably ideal for them, venue-wise. But Halpert-Hanson pushed back on that notion: “I actually do personally enjoy playing in front of the Torah. Just for the sake of driving home the discrepancy that we seem to play on so heavily—being transgender, which is not an accepted gender identity in institutional mainstream Jewland. We’re mashing these things together and marrying them—and acting that out by playing in front of the Torah.”

***

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In the Recording Studio With Schmekel, the Transgender Jewish Punk Band

As they produce ‘The Whale That Ate Jonah,’ members dish about Chabad, circumcision, and the time they performed in an S&M dungeon

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