(Boston Jewish Journal) — A decade ago, Joe Resnek was a precocious 23-year-old boy from a grueling background who graduated from Harvard and made his way into the Obama Administration speech writer.
His goal—and his goal was lofty—was to get into Harvard Law School. he made it. Along the way, he founded the law school’s mock trial team and became the No. 1 student attorney on the national circuit.
Next goal: Become a public defender. “It’s because I played Atticus Finch in the high school production of To Kill a Mockingbird,” he said in an interview, referring to Harper Lee’s 1960 novel Principled lawyers who advocate for racial justice.
He did that too. For two and a half years, he represented drug offenders, drunk drivers, assault and battery suspects, and others who couldn’t afford to hire a private attorney.
Meanwhile, Resnek’s law school classmates have entered judicial clerks, Wall Street and elite law firms. So, where is Resnek now?
Back in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where he grew up rocking dreadlocks, hanging out with his lifelong friends — and making music about life nearby. In June, he released his first album, titled “1,” which reflects his roots in Chelsea, Massachusetts’ geographically smallest city at 2.46 square miles, with per capita income hovering around $26,000.
Nearly 70 percent of Chelsea’s population is Latino, and bears little resemblance to the neighborhood of a century ago, when it was a working-class center of Jewish life. At the time, more than half of the Jewish and Chelsea population was known as “Little Jerusalem.” Resnek’s Chelsea lineage dates back to 1885, when his great-great-grandfather Josiah came from Belarus and eventually ran a butcher’s shop.
He sings about leaving and coming home, about a shared vision of community, about unhappy lives—in a pop/rap genre that defies categorization.
He also released a few music videos, including one for a song called “Ghetto” in which he jumps – sings – on Park Street.
The landlord is after
Work is anyone’s only hope to make it big…
Next target? “Just trying to promote my music and release more new music,” said Resnek, enjoying the night air on a bench in Mary O’Malley Park, named after Chelsea’s famous matriarch. It overlooks the Mystic River in the shadow of Tobin Bridge. He said he loved being a public defender, but “music brought me here. I’m back.”
“It’s been quite a metamorphosis, or an evolution. Or both,” said his father, Joshua Resneck, publisher and editor of the Everett Herald.
From “punk” to “speaker”
I first met Resnek in 2012, when I interviewed him for a Boston Globe story about his unlikely transformation from self-proclaimed “Chelsea Punk” low-level criminal to bureaucratic, Speech writer for cabinet heads and ambassadors. Resnek, who spent a year and a half in the role as an Obama appointee, said it gave him “a deeper understanding of the workings of power in the United States.”
Far from Tobin Bridge. “When you come from Chelsea, you are lucky to be in Everett,” he said at the time.
When he went to Harvard at Cambridge, Chelsea was in his blood.
He stayed with his friends, sometimes jogging back from Harvard Square, through four cities—Cambridge, Somerville, Charleston and Everett—to come home for Sabbath dinner.
His mother, Carol Resnek, traced his passion for music back to taking him to a Sting concert when he was 8 years old. ‘”
She bought him an electric guitar and amp, and soon he was writing his own music. In fifth grade, he formed a band called Impulse with a guitarist he met at Hebrew school.
“We’re playing over there,” he said, pointing to the park’s cement platform. They performed at Punk Corner and school dances at Revere Beach.
At Harvard, he put his music aside and concentrated on his studies, but returned to Chelsea for the summer, parked in his mother’s basement. “All he did was pat, pat, pat,” she said. Towards the end of law school, he played in Harvard Square and the streets of downtown. The day someone tipped him $50 was “one of the greatest moments of my life.”
On the day he was admitted to the Massachusetts bar, he applied for his first public defender job. He found one in Greenfield, he didn’t know the soul, but “the people in the system were very nice,” he said. “I get along well with the clerk, the guards and the customers. It provides me with camaraderie.”
It also provides him with material:
The best way to start your day with Walkin outta prison ’round
Look at the sun on the sidewalk, I have nothing to say
But watching me in prison makes me think damn I should be
Care less about my reputation and be more grateful that I’m free
Every minute he’s not doing law is doing music. Occasionally while he’s doing law, after the pandemic started and court appearances moved to Zoom. At one point, he was editing a song on his computer while waiting for his case to be called. He thought he was on mute, but his pounding was heard throughout the courtroom.
The judge was not amused. But Resnek was happy: Prosecutors asked him where to find the song on Spotify.
“Greenfield is where he grew his hair, where the transformation really took place,” says Joshua Resnek. “He rented a house and made a sound studio full of speakers, microphones, guitars, drums and piano. It became a celebrity for his career. Greenfield was completely liberating for him.”
“He had this passion,” says his friend Gabe Cederberg, a musician who met Resnek at Harvard and has been helping him with productions. “I know how much effort he put into every word.”
connected to his ancestors
Although the path he has chosen seems disconnected from his previous life, Resneck doesn’t see it that way. “It feels ‘from the bottom’ like my Jewish ancestors came to Chelsea to sell pots and pans. I feel a deep connection to my ancestors who started here like I got mine,” he said. wrote in an email. “I believe I have a legacy of ambition in my family. Whether that was Jewish or not, I don’t know.”
These days, he plays anywhere he can, including high-traffic tourist destinations and music venues. On August 22, he will perform at the Midway Café in Jamaica Plain. His songs can be heard on multiple streaming platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, and YouTube.
“I practice on the street and see how people react,” he said. It occurred to him that a song was a lot like a speech. “Moving the crowd is the principle,” he said. “Obama is a rock star – not because he sings.”
A few days ago, he got his first $100 tip from a man who told him, “Use what you get to share your music with the world.”
“It’s a good sign,” Resnek said. “People are really moved by what I do.”