What Goes into a Punk Rock Cover of the Shema?
The Shema is arguably the most important prayer in Judaism. Jews are commanded to recite it upon waking up and going to sleep. It’s supposed to be the last words uttered before dying. It’s transcribed in mezuzot and tefillin. It’s a bold declaration of monotheism and faith: “Hear, O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is one.” Can pious punks perform a raucous rendition of the Shema without sacrificing its sanctity?
The Jewish punk band Moshiach Oi! included “Shema Yisroel” on their debut album in 2009. Moshiach Oi! espouse Torah teachings and embrace Orthodox Judaism. While their musical style is loud and brash, their faith and observance are genuine.
The first discrepancy listeners might notice is in Hebrew. Singer Yishai Romanoff says “Hashem”—literally “the name”—instead of G-d’s name, which the prayer uses. He pronounces the next word “Elokeinu,” with a “k” sound instead of an “h” in a different name for G-d.
Romanoff explained that while some Jewish musicians say G-d’s name in their songs, there isn’t consensus on whether that amounts to using His name in vain. Romanoff worried that every time he performed the song, he might not have the same “level of kavanah [intention] and concentration” he has when praying. When Romanoff takes the stage, his stated kavanah is “for the sake of G-d” and “only to make G-d’s name great in the world.” Nevertheless, Romanoff was unsure whether he’d succeed in having the same kavanah at every punk show and concluded that he should play it safe.
The band’s drummer, Pesach Simcha Alpert, agreed. He noted that “everyone” could “access” the song. Regardless of whether they had “proper intentions, they could be throwing around this Holy name that’s only for prayer, and they could go wrong without knowing the importance of it,” Alpert said. Moshiach Oi! were mindful not just of their kavanah but also the audience screaming the Shema along with them at concerts and at home.
Listeners will also hear a wording difference in English. After starting off with “Hear, Israel,” Romanoff switches to “Listen up, you Jews.” This colloquial alternative “sounds punk,” boasted Romanoff. He noted that it had the “same message” and was a “valid translation.”
In a three-minute song sung in Hebrew and English, the lyrics never get past recitations and adaptations of the Shema’s opening line. This fits in with Moshiach Oi!’s less-is-more approach, as epitomized by songs where two or three words are repeated throughout.
Especially for someone unfamiliar with punk rock, the music is fierce and grating. Much of Romanoff’s vocal style is screaming. At live shows he sometimes drops to the floor for emphasis while bellowing out the lyrics. As unconventional as it may be, Romanoff defended his approach:
People have told me that what I do is sacrilegious. I remember when I was in yeshiva, there was one guy who heard my song “Shema Yisroel” …. He said that I’m taking the prayer and lowering it. I think that’s just stupidity, because sometimes you have to express it in different ways that people in the world today can relate to. Not everyone can relate to going to a synagogue and sitting down. It can be kind of boring. If I scream “Shema Yisroel” at the top of my lungs, maybe people will get into it a little more, really feel it. You’re supposed to feel it. You’re supposed to be on fire for it.
When Moshiach Oi! perform “Shema Yisroel” full throttle, they’re not trying to diminish the prayer. They’re reciting a key piece of Jewish liturgy and praising G-d—albeit not in the most straightforward way. They’re using punk rock as a vehicle to excite listeners about Judaism.
Michael Croland is the author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, which was published by Praeger (an imprint of ABC-CLIO) last year. He was the first person to interview Moshiach Oi!, and he has seen them live at least 10 times.
This is one of a series of posts exploring the intersection of rock and spirituality, leading up to the release of In Pursuit, an album of original Jewish hard rock. Sign up for the mailing list to learn more.