THE basement auditorium of the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side is a sincere space. Big, brown and bare, it suggests a school gym, a place for officially sanctioned fun — which made a recent concert by Schmekel, a raucous klezmer-core punk band made up of “100% trans Jews,” all the more surprising.
“Schmekel” means little penis in Yiddish, and is a play on the fact that all four members were born female but now identify themselves on the masculine side of the gender spectrum. It’s an appropriate name for a band that started as a laugh.
“I made a joke at a diner about how it’d be funny if there were an all-transmasculine band called Schmekel that was all Jews,” said Lucian Kahn, 29, a guitarist and vocalist.
When Mr. Schwartz started to prepare for his bat mitzvah, he began questioning everything from his religion to his gender, and he sought support from his temple. “My rabbi sat down with me and we had many conversations,” Mr. Schwartz said.
The rabbi told him that his soul was “probably a more masculine one,” and that he had to “live in the female experience to learn both sides of the coin.”
That, in Mr. Schwartz’s view, is what Judaism is all about. “We’re supposed to better ourselves as human beings, not as male or female,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
Indeed, for all the band’s irreverence, the foursome is serious about Judaism. Mr. Riot wears a skullcap, was born in Israel and grew up in Fair Lawn, N.J., in a modern Orthodox community. Mr. Kahn identifies as an atheist but holds a master’s degree in religious history from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. And Simcha Halpert-Hanson (who prefers not to be identified with gendered honorifics or pronouns) grew up in the Reform movement but has always been drawn to a stricter interpretation of Judaism.
In the end, it may be their respect for and knowledge of their history that makes the band groundbreaking. They are not fractious rebels storming the castle of traditional faith, though they are fierce critics of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in organized Jewish life. They see themselves as grounded in a strong Judaic tradition, even if the rest of the world doesn’t — yet. But they are reaching out, and the mainstream is reaching back.