Photo by Josh Leifer
Photo by Josh Leifer

In the basement of the 2D co-op, a dim blue light, created by taping a recycling bin over an incandescent bulb, glows on a crowd of fifty. Toward the front of the audience, a boy with a shaggy ponytail sporting a leather jacket with a hammer-and-sickle patch turns to the guy next to him. He says, deadpan, “Dude, this is fucking sick.” In the back, a boy in a yarmulkah and tzitzit stands on a couch, swaying to the punk rock. The band playing is New York-based Koyt far Dayn Fardakht, Yiddish for “The Filth of Your Suspicions.” They’re a group with many adjectives: queer, trans, Yiddish, anarchist, punk. They translate the Yiddish lyrics of “strikes, uprisings, assassinations, and revolutionary movements from Odessa to Vilna” into modern punk. The band’s primary political agenda is ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine—they’re avowedly anti-Zionist. Upon hearing this, the boy on the couch waxed angry and regretful about having let himself enjoy the concert.

The Princeton show was Koyt’s first to a crowd that was not primarily leftist Jewish political activists. Because of the various identities the group takes on, it is hard for them to find accepting audiences. Reyse, the band’s bassist, discussed concerns within the punk community: “Punk culture is very atheistic in a certain way, and I never felt like there was really a place there for my Jewish identity. Maybe to some extent people would be into us, but there might be some difficulty in connecting with the traditional punk audience.”

The band is also alienated from much of the Jewish community because of their staunch anti-Zionist beliefs. They embody an image that challenges Jewish nationalism. As Rozele put it, the band’s music “is deeply entangled with the history of the Yiddish left and the history of Zionism and its commitment to attacking traditional Jewish cultures in the name of “muskeljudentum,” the ‘new muscle Jew.’” The band discussed the idea of “muskeljudentum,” which they describe as “the incredible gendering of the new Jew Zionist as masculine, and the marking of the older Ashkenazi Jew as effeminate and weak.” They embody a feminine identity that is counter to the masculine Zionist they describe. They see their identity as consciously opposing a Jewish state.

While the band’s music is punk rock, their image is not cold or intimidating. When I walked into 2D to interview the band I found the four members huddled around a computer, giggling to themselves as they deliberated how to word an email. When I introduced myself they were clearly excited to be interviewed. Other than their outfits—mostly black with accents like big, spiky purple earrings, a silver “feminist killjoy” necklace, cutoff tank tops, etc.—the band made no pretense at being overtly “punk rock.” Their music and lyrics do it for them: “from out of the prisons/ with bombs and dynamite/ annihilate the tyrants who suck our blood.” Their personalities range. Reyse, the bassist, is laid back. Yonah, the guitarist, is soft spoken and self-deprecating. Rozele, the singer, is bubbly, academic, and well spoken. Maggie, the drummer, avoided speaking as much as possible during the interview.

While in their lyrics book and in our interview the band repeatedly used the word “badass” to describe the political messages they preach and the music they play, the word veils their deep political bent and evocation of Ashkenazi Jewish history. In a modern cultural context, playing for an audience of mainly secular college kids, the band had to negotiate between preaching their political philosophy and appealing to the crowd. Rozele introduced one song by asking “Who here has heard of Birobidzhan?” and grinning. A few hands went up, before they promptly explained that it was the Jewish nationalist project in the Soviet Union, and how, like all nationalist projects, “it was a terrible fucking idea. It’s the one song we sing ironically.” The band then jumped into a Yiddish nationalist song from the Soviet era. This intro demonstrates the artful tiptoeing that Koyt tries to pull off. The drummer, Maggie, works as an archivist, and a deep knowledge of historic Yiddish texts shines through. In our interview, the band referenced a number of obscure figures from Ashkenazi history. Many of Koyt’s lyrics are from 1940’s Yiddish protest songs that require an archivist’s research ability and a historian’s understanding of cultural and political context to understand. Understandably, the band’s audience thus far has primarily been Yiddish cultural workers in New York City. In settings like Princeton, they have to work around knowledge gaps. They have to rely on their performance, bolstered by brief explanations of history, rather than the Yiddish lyrics and radical politics.

Despite their spot on the political and cultural fringe, Yonah says the band has a vibrant community to play to: “It’s amazing to be in New York and have a scene of queer and trans radical Jews where not everyone knows each other. You can fill a room of a few hundred people of queer and trans radical Jews, probably most of whom are anti-Zionist.”

The concert, sponsored by the Alliance of Jewish Progressives and WPRB (full disclosure: I am a part of both groups), was a refreshing moment for the fringe on campus. Even in 2D, a hub of alternative living at Princeton, one is still surrounded by students who may be future diplomats, development workers, or government officials. Many will become part of the establishment that promotes the nationalism, colonialism, and heteronormativity that the band rejects. While the beauty of the event was certainly not in angering observant Jews, supporters of Israel, or other students (at least from the perspective of the sponsoring groups), the ability to have live performances that challenge students to think seriously about their political beliefs is important and refreshing on campus. Outside of a handful of concerts at eating clubs, most artistic activity is confined to the Lewis Center and Intime, with little room for experimentation. The band is certainly radical, but even if one doesn’t agree with their political views (I don’t fully) or understand the historical, linguistic, or cultural references (I also don’t fully), the band is still a refreshing challenge to the political and cultural stagnancy at Princeton. The concert followed the Princeton Committee on Palestine’s recent public art display in the center of campus. Outside of groups like TFI, PCP, and J Street, however, there seemed to be little discussion of the rather provocative art piece. The concert was an important follow-up. It demonstrated that we can engage with difficult political issues, and do so in new, inventive ways. Concerts and art pieces with a political bent serve two purposes on campus. They fill a void of artistic activity, and start a broader and deeper political conversation. Ideally, this concert would be the start of a larger scene for performances that will disrupt this campus’s political and cultural apathy.