Embracing And Defying Stereotypes With The Semites On Bikes
The usual definition of "nice Jewish boy" is polite, passive, afraid of getting his hands dirty, cute but not sexy, intellectually gifted but otherwise ineffectual--and totally anathema to Ken Shapiro. "That's been kind of an obsession of mine since I was 10 or 11 years old," says the 53-year-old motorcycle enthusiast and kindergarten teacher about his lifelong curiosity with Jewish men who defy the semi-neuter stereotype.
Shapiro--who, with his steely gaze and silvery hair, looks more like Paul Newman than Woody Allen--as a kid idolized two-fisted Jews like Sandy Koufax, the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers' legendary left-handed pitcher, and film star Kirk Douglas. A big revelation was when he "found out everyone on Bonanza--except for Hop Sing--was Jewish," he says. "All those tough guys--that was a big thing."
Shapiro alighted on his own outlet to defy such stereotypes with Semites on Bikes, the loosely organized, very quasi-religious biker gang he formed in 2004 as a means to be free to ride their machines and not get hassled by the man and, well, be Jewish. Kind of. "It really is not very Jewish of a group in the religious sense," Shapiro says. "It's a very secular group. But there's a social aspect of Judaism that's strong, and that's the focus."
And how. "Did you eat something?" Art Eanet, aka "Sir Tee," urges through a mouthful of bagel. "Get something." Usually it's bubbe imploring you to eat, not a powerfully built biker in a black muscle tee, but this gorgeous Shabbat morning at Courtney's Bagel Café in Owings Mills the SOBs--as the Semites on Bikes members sometimes refer to themselves--make the rules. A small fleet of V-twin bikes glitter like scarabs outside as the garrulous flock of leather- and denim-clad men and women circulate around several jammed-together tables, kissing, backslapping, passing around coffee and bagels, and yelling rejoinders at carnival decibel. The only way this crowd could hurt anyone at Altamont is if someone got between them and the knishes.
The previous evening SOB Scott Adelman--biker name "Showboat"--posted the 50,000th comment on the Semites on Bikes Yahoo! Groups page, thus "volunteering" to pick up this morning's tab--a dubious honor bestowed just this once to commemorate the occasion. After their fuel-up on carbs and caffeine, the SOBs are riding out to Annapolis, taking "the long way," Eanet says. "We're stereotypical in some respects," he says with a wink in his voice. "We don't want to go up the Bay Bridge so we don't have to pay."
That self-deprecating, slightly verboten nudge hints at the flavor of the group's cardinal rule--give as well as you get, because no cow is sacred. (This reporter gets it, too. "You're from the City Paper?" Carl "Sir Diesel" Galler asks. "OK, we can say fuck.") But the overall impression coloring the salty camaraderie is of tremendous affection. These men and women could join any other biker group if they wanted and save the socializing for Rosh Hashanah. But the mood around the table reflects this logic: We like bagels and lox. And we like bikes. So why choose?
Is this a normal-sized group? "Jeffrey's a little bigger than most of us, but he's lost weight," cracks Shapiro, here known as "King Ken" of the SOBs. He's got a tattoo of "Skullberg," the club's yarmulke-wearing death's-head mascot, on his arm. He founded the SOBs after splitting from the Tribe, another Jewish motorcycle club in the Washington area. "They were just too Jewish," he says. "They wouldn't ride on Saturdays, they had to find kosher restaurants. They wouldn't ride on Yom Kippur, would you believe that? They whine a lot . . . "
"They kvetch a lot," Eanet interjects.
"They're basically pasty and can't use hand tools," Shapiro concludes. "So I started the Yahoo group [for] anyone in the Baltimore area who wants to ride and is willing to ride on Saturdays. It's basically about being a delicatessen Jew."
The Semites on Bikes home page (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/semitesonbikes) posts the club's tongue-in-cheek criteria for "non-stereotypical jews" who'd like to join: "the closest 695 exit near your home has a numeral less than 18 or greater than 23," "only goes to schul for weddings and bar mitzvahs," "is a right wing conservative," "hunts and/or fishes," "enlisted in the military," "caused the death of another human being." The list feels like a riff of one-liners (ha ha, "does their own home improvement"! No, seriously.), but as each attribute is read aloud and hands go up around the room, it's startlingly clear how the attendant assumptions about the preferences and abilities of Jews don't apply.
Who's caused someone's death? "I qualify for that," says Galler, an olive-skinned man with a tribal armband and a try burning this one American flag patch on his vest.
"You got somebody who committed suicide because of you?" Eanet asks.
"Yeah, I was the last phone call and I didn't answer."
"Nice going," Shapiro says. He points out Larry Gellar, aka Sir Major, seated at a nearby table. "Major is military. You're in the Navy." The entire table quickly belts out a chorus of the Village People's "In the Navy." "And he's gay, write that down," Shapiro jokes. Gellar shakes his head with a don't listen to this guy expression.
The constant teasing is part of being an SOB. "Without regard to your affiliation, you get a lot of flack," Eanet says. "We equally give each other shit. The right-wingers are giving the left-wingers shit, the left-wingers--well, since the king is a left-winger . . . "
"Naw, I'm a little left of that," Shapiro jokes. The table quickly erupts into hubbub of who is where on the political spectrum. "That's a part of what makes us so tight," Eanet explains. "Once they have that sense of humor, once we get through that barrier, then we care about each other. We haze each other. But we always manage to come back to the fold."
The SOBs aren't the first to wrestle with the conundrum of "Who is a Jew?" When a tribal identity is part religion, part heredity, part culture, and part recipes, the line between "us" and "them" is blurry. The Semites on Bikes have parked their tires on the secular side of the good stuff, keeping the humor, the noshing, the any-excuse-to-get-together-and-kibitz and discarding anything that might keep them from fully enjoying the open road.
"It's more about motorcycles," Shapiro says. He points around at the sizable crowd that's now clustered around the too few tables--"not Jewish, not Jewish . . . "
"Terry wasn't born Jewish," someone interjects.
"Right," a voice answers. "She's Jewish by injection."
"You took my line," Shapiro roars. "Hey, do you know why women love Jesus?" He lifts his hands five feet apart in a limp crucifixion pose. "Because he's hung like this."
The SOBs are not, however, all jokes over meals. When the KKK held a rally at Antietam in June, the Semites on Bikes came out in full force for the protest against the Klan. "It was, like, a bunch of impotent, old decrepit men," scoffs Dame Shadow (aka Trish Powers), who attended with her spouse and fellow SOB Sheryl "SIP" Powers. "That was sacred ground. It was a battlefield where people died on both sides. To put on such a display in a place that was all about freedom was very insulting."
The SOBs countered the Klan's slogans with renditions of "Hava Nagila" and "God Bless America." Even though Shapiro later points out that the protest "wasn't really a nonstereotypical thing to do," in light of ample historical incidents of Jews protesting bigotry and discrimination, he still says, "I had no objection. It was kind of fun."
And today's fun can't wait any longer. Shapiro stands up. "Excuse me, guys," he bellows over the crowd with the authority of a teacher used to commanding the attention of a rowdy roomful. "Outside in five minutes for our talk. If you need to use the bathroom, use it now. Kickstands up at 9:30."
Chairs screech, plates get tossed, and the crowd funnels gradually to the door. After a briefing on today's itinerary and a safety refresher, the SOBs bow their heads as Shapiro asks Skullberg's blessing with "Keep us safe on the road." The crew straps on helmets and saddles up. The parking lot roars with the combined growl of three dozen engines. The caravan moves at a stately pace out of the parking lot. They'll hit their stride once they merge onto the boulevard, but while revving idly their progress is slow enough to read their individual insignia as they pass. Amid the patches, bandannas, and wraparound shades one member's wearing a T-shirt. It reads let my people ride.
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