Patrick Aleph is the lead singer of the Southern Jewish punk band Can!!Can and a former employee of Modern Tribe Judaica. Michael Sabani is his quieter, more introverted partner in crime. Together, they’re creating PunkTorah, a mostly (but not entirely) online Jewish community of punks, vegetarians, outlaws, and anyone else who (in their words) wants to take ownership of their spirituality. Physically, they’re based in Atlanta (with a group house and beis midrash/library in the works), but online, they’re literally all over the place. And, with the release of their new Indie Minyan Kit, they’re aligning themselves for even bigger things.
The Minyan Kit includes music, an “egalitarian kippah” (more on that to come) and a brand new PunkTorah Siddur — a “gender-inclusive, LGBT friendly, progressive and independent” prayerbook for individuals and groups, with prayers composed by Aleph and Sabani.
In their short existence so far, Sabani and Aleph have been wildly productive. They’ve started a video blog of the weekly Torah portion, created an online IndieYeshiva (their word) of outside-the-box Jewish learning, and printed about a million little themed pins, from the kooky “Hey! There’s a box on my head” to drawing the missing link (see the graphic on the right) between Star Wars and Pirkei Avot. I wrote my first book about Jewish punk kids because I was Jewish, and pretty intense about it — “intense” in a slam-dancing, shout-your-prayers-out-loud way — and I wished there were other people out there that felt the same way I did. Patrick and Michael did the same thing, but they went a step further: instead of fantasizing about the community, they’re actually building it. Through their websites PunkTorah.com and IndieYeshiva.org, they’re building a virtual community of like-minded activists, learners, and Jews that want to be affiliated, but are uncomfortable affiliating with the usual places. We asked them about the perfect minyan, how to write a siddur…and what exactly a gender-inclusive kippah is.
MyJewishLearning: Let me start off by saying I don’t get it. What’s the difference between a regular kippah and an egalitarian kippah?
Michael Sabani (to Patrick): You kind of named it that.
Patrick Aleph: That’s true, I did name it that. The egalitarian kippah came out of my experience of going to the Limmud fest, the first-ever Southeastern Limmud fest, and seeing women walking around with kippot. When we were putting together the idea for the IndieMinyan kit, I casually talked to friends of ours about what we wanted to include. We struggled with this thing of, how do you do headcoverings for men and for women? We finally decided, instead of having lace headcoverings and yarmulkes and scarves–so what’s the one thing we can do that covers all headcoverings? We picked this one design that was gender-inclusive, that wasn’t too much in either direction.
Why not just use one of the egalitarian siddurim that already exists?
Michael: Personally, for me this came out of a soul search — more a soul struggle. I got all these different siddurs, and I’m looking at them, and they’re so — just confusing to me. With PunkTorah, we’re making a place where outsiders can feel welcome, and where I can feel welcome. I would study with some Orthodox rabbis, and I’m like, how do you do this stuff? How do you pray every day? We didn’t have any spirituality in the house at all growing up. I was looking for guidance, getting different answers from everywhere. We wanted to take Judaism and make it understandable for us — something that anyone can feel comfortable making their own.
Patrick: One thing for me is, when I started talking about writing a siddur, at first Michael mentioned it to me — I’ve got a really out-there idea, let’s write a siddur. I’d been writing since i was 11 years old, but it never occurred to me that a siddur was something that someone could write. Someone could look at our siddur and say, hey, that’s something I can write. Prayer should be open source.
So was the idea of the PunkTorah siddur to create a beginner’s prayerbook, or an everyone-should-write-their-own?
Michael: I wouldn’t call it a beginner’s prayerbook, but it is an easily-approachable one. It’s for someone who’s not in the traditional or progressive movement, or someone who’s not familiar with praying 3 times a day — you know, someone who’s like “You mean there’s more than just going to services on Friday night?” We wanted to bring it into people’s lives, the idea of praying three times a day. And if it inspires people to write their own, that’d be incredible — to inspire someone to own their Judaism by creating their own.
Patrick: I almost see it like when you’re young, and you go to your first rock concert, and you see a band play that you’ve heard on the radio, and then you pick up a guitar or the drums, you’re not going to play that style of whatever that person’s into — you might play something completely different. But you still have that initial experience, and you use that to go the next step. Michael: The whole big driving point behind this whole yearlong project of writing the siddur and creating [the upcoming website] 3xDaily, I come from an interfaith home, too — my father’s Muslim. We didn’t do anything Muslim as kids, but seeing the whole Islamic aspect of praying five times a day and how vital that is to Muslim identity — it’s like, being a Muslim means that you pray five times daily. And I have the Jewish concept of praying three times a day, and it’s not familiar to many Jews, even affiliated ones — they don’t even know what you’re talking about. We want to bring that to people, to make it important and approachable. That’s one of the main things we tried to do with the siddur — it’ll have videos and content and, just, how to pray 3 times a day. Not that you should pray, but that you can — and this is how.
Did you base your prayers on any single translation, or was any existing prayerbook influential for you?
Michael: Pretty much all of them were. We have a bunch in the IndieYeshiva library — as we wrote, we would have all of them open, and we just jumped from Mishkan Tefilah [the new Reform prayerbook] to Renewal to ArtScroll and the Koren Sacks Siddur and Reconstructionist.
Patrick: Not just that, but also having different commentary books and philosophy books. We really wanted to bring in everything. If there was a word we didn’t understand or a comment that didn’t make sense, we tried to see what everyone thought about it — we took this gigantic base, and then we went ahead and mashed up everything.
Some of the prayers — especially the bedtime shema — are surprisingly peaceful for, well, someone who shouts for a living. How’d you swing that?
Patrick: That’s fair. I’m in a band where I scream and roll around on the floor, but there’s a place for meditation in every person’s life. This is the best example I can give of this: I was at Jewlicious, and I was working in the kitchen with Sasha Edge and her father, who catered it — they’re screaming and there’s knives everywhere, and fire. But then when it was time for Shabbos, we ended up making motzi over a vegan cookie and drinking Kedem grape juice and some of the back-of-the-house volunteers had a great, awesome, totally spiritual and peaceful moment. If you’re a rambunctious person like myself, it’s even more important.
What is the usual Shabbat like in your community?
Michael: We like to have dinner at home. My wife comes home, and my daughter, Willow, is running around, and try to make dinner and light the candles and have a normal — for us — dinner. Relaxing, company, friends and food.
Patrick: Occasionally, we’ll go to synagogue together, the four of us, but…
Is there a synagogue around, or a minyan, that gets you, or do you do your own thing?
Michael: We do have a minyan sometimes, actually — we’d be working or just hanging out on Friday afternoon, and we’re like, let’s just do it here! And we’ll fly solo, I guess. But there’s a few places around that we do like. We’ll go to a bunch of them –
Patrick: We tend to be temple-hoppers.
Michael: We’re not members of any synagogue in the area, mostly because we can’t afford it. We like to see what’s going on in different places. For me personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable only davening in one place.
Do you have any plans to get together a community of your own? Or are you going to start a little PunkTorah Michigan-Militia style havurah?
Patrick: I like that! In a sense, we have a havurah online because we’ve created it. Here in the Atlanta area, now that we’re doing PunkTorah all time through a few generous contributions, we’re in a place where we’re really going to start having more physical events. I’ve been talking to our local chapter of Birthright NEXT who let us be involved in their first conference. Now that the siddur is out, now that we have minyan kits and the new websites and the web store, getting out of the office and being more physical.
Kind of like praying, I guess.
Patrick: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.