Category: Press

Mainstream Dreams for Jewish Rockers
The Shondes to Open for the Punk Group Against Me!
by Lilit Marcus

South Brooklyn rock band the Shondes has just joined one of the country’s buzziest bands for a national tour. But can a musical act whose name means “shame” or “disgrace” in Yiddish break into the mainstream?

The Shondes grabbed the attention of one important fan—the punk group Against Me!, which invited them to open for their 22-date East Coast tour, which took them to Brooklyn and Asbury Park, N.J., last week. The tour coincides with the release of the Shondes’ new album, “The Garden.”

Although many Christian bands, even ones with overtly religious lyrics, have been able to successfully cross over into mainstream pop, members of the Shondes sometimes worry that their music’s edgy, Jewish-influenced lyrics may not be able to navigate the same path.

“We’re not doing the Jewish equivalent of Christian rock,” said lead singer Louisa Solomon, 31 years old, who sports a tattoo of a Hebrew letter on her wrist. “But we do come from a Jewish intellectual tradition—big feelings and big ideas.”

The band’s two original members connected over their shared backgrounds when they met in New York City in 2001. Ms. Solomon, who grew up in upstate New York, and violinist Elijah Oberman, a native of Virginia, both grew up in Jewish homes structured more around food, humor and culture than strict religious observance. They studied religious texts together and shared in Jewish holidays and other rituals.

In 2007, Ms. Solomon and Mr. Oberman decided that, rather than play in other bands, they should form their own. Their debut album, released in 2008, was called “The Red Sea,” a reference to the sea that famously parted to let the Jews escape from slavery in Egypt.

The Jewish texts they had studied together wove their way into the lyrics sung by Ms. Solomon, whose voice has been compared with that of Corin Tucker, lead singer of the all-female punk band Sleater-Kinney. Many of the Shondes’ strident, anthemic songs deal with keeping hope and staying strong in the face of adversity, whether it is Jews watching the temple fall in Jerusalem or an awkward kid getting picked on at school.

While the members of the Shondes say they embrace being labeled a Jewish band, they sometimes chafe at being pigeonholed as a Brooklyn band, knowing all the music-industry stereotypes about snobbery that come with it.

Michael Croland, who is writing a history of Jews in punk rock for Praeger Books, has been keeping a close eye on the Shondes since their days playing tiny venues in Queens in 2008 and 2009.

They have dealt with typical music-industry problems: a bad contract that they had to buy themselves out of, lineup changes, a self-funded tour, and stolen equipment. But a strong faith in music kept them going.

Though Mr. Croland has written about punk bands like the Ramones and NOFX, who had Jewish members and occasionally referenced their religious identities, he says that the Shondes are unique in the way that they sing openly about Judaism in their lyrics.

He notes that, whether out of force or necessity, many Jewish bands never go outside of their sphere, playing Jewish events and parties but never crossing over or going mainstream. The most successful act to come out of this world was Matisyahu, the then-Hasidic singer who started on now-defunct Jewish label JDub Records, eventually signed with Sony and had a top-40 hit in 2005.

The Shondes, Mr. Croland said, now have an opportunity to transcend as well.

“I think the Shondes have stayed true to their ideals and their approach,” he said. “They are no longer just a Jewish band.”