Slamming Poetry at Flatbush
Yeshiva competition highlights the value of poetry as a cultural mirror
By Robert Hirschfield | March 9, 2015
Originally published by The Jerusalem Report
I arrived early at the Flatbush Yeshiva in Brooklyn. The blasts of Arctic air outside the Avenue J station made me think of my vile winter ascent up Jessup Avenue as a boy attending Yeshiva Zichl'on Moshe in the Bronx. Only there were no young poets then named Chezky, Suri; Shoshi, Natalie, Abby and Zack. Names that leaped out at me from the printed sheet I was given, which included my own name as one of three judges of the poetry slam that brought me here.
I was guided to the downstairs annex by a relay team of friendly teen-age girls in long skirts whose hands I had to remember not to shake. Encountering non-sexualized adolescence in a co-ed high school setting was illuminating. All these loose-limbed, talkative, hardly over-spiritualized daughters (sons, too - Flatbush is co-ed) of modern Orthodox Jews swimming in their parents' waters. I laughed to myself thinking that the conservative moral code they navigate must make them seem, in the eyes of some secularists, as extreme as anarchists.
The poets were divided into three groups, consisting of students from eight Jewish high schools. The group I was to judge (I dislike the notion of poetry as competitive, as a word sport of sorts, but it pleases me that poetry has suddenly become popular in yeshivas all across the metropolitan area) consisted largely of girls, as did the other two groups.
This popularity is partly due to the efforts of two former Yeshiva University students, Aaron Roller and Hillel Broder. They were involved with the now-defunct poetry journal Mima'amakim (From out of the depths, a reference to Psalm 130: "From out of the depths I called to you, God), created as a forum for publishing Jewish poetry and art with a religious orientation.
About five years ago, they cofounded the Yeshiva High School Poetry Slam, a competition designed both to encourage religious literary expression and to educate potential poets about traditional poetic verse forms. As Roller, the man who ignited my interest in the competition, explained in an article on the Orthodox Union website, "We wanted to help students take ownership of their religious experience through thinking deeply about their lives and developing creative ways to express their values and sensibilities."
My group and its constellation of listeners assembled in a sprawling space large enough almost to have been a converted gym. The subject for the day was identity. Not Jewish identity necessarily - for teenagers, identity in all its forms assumes centrality.
The first poem, which was read, by an olive-skinned Syrian girl (the neighborhood is a Syrian Jewish stronghold), was received with the customary finger-clicking that translates in the yeshiva poetry community as approval.
Is there a reason My beliefs sound like treason To you? My religious adhesion Doesn't differ much from what you believe in. Getting spit thrown in my direction, Feeling avoided, like I'm an infection. Being called a negative reflection Of our people as a whole
A lifelong writer of prose, I came to poetry in old age, after the drowning of my younger brother. For a moment, I tried to imagine what it might have been like, studying in a poetry group at school, like this girl and the other yeshiva kids. With my rebellious streak, I probably would have ended up an accountant. But it is a positive indicator for Jewish culture that yeshiva students are joining poetry clubs the way other adolescents gravitate to sports.
Hearing the students read, reemphasized for me the value of poetry as a cultural mirror. It served to break down any stereotype one might have about orthodoxy among the young Orthodox. Like the lines of this wild poet, a girl in her late teens, whom I voted the best of my group:
Over size and yellow hair? And if all my soul I laid bare, I still wouldn't understand How l dare To question the overly plump mouth that takes in air, Or the way it lets out swear Words like carbon dioxide
The finger clicking for her took on an intensity I transposed in my imagination to a Talmud class, in which an unusually skilled textual interpretation would be greeted in the same way as a brilliantly worded sonnet.
Audience support for their peers that included chanting their first names, as if they were star athletes, gave the slam a festive atmosphere. As a writer and a reviewer of poetry, I am forever being reminded of its hyper-marginal status. To find myself at a slam among the Orthodox, where poetry is embraced as a vehicle for spiritual, intellectual and ethical creativity, is to arrive in a land I did not find on any detractor's map.
Not unlike the established poets I know, the fledgling poets here took pleasure in referencing the venerable forms of their craft. One young finalist (we three judges sorted out the finalists like vexed Talmudists) recited a poem alluding to Terza Rima, a form I only became aware of three years ago. Another, a boy, wearing a kippa like all the boys, began by saying, "I have written a sonnet. But no one wants to hear a sonnet."
Immediately, a chant rose up, as if from some ancient British poetry academy, "Son-net! Son-net! Son-net!"
When the winner was declared (only one poet-of-the-day winner! How could we have done such a thing!), the young woman, suppressing tears of impossible joy, collapsed into her friend's arms as if she had just won an Oscar. Before her ecstasy could congeal, Ariela Robinson, the director of the Flatbush poetry group, announced, "Now we will daven mincha."
A new art form has a religious following
By Michael Orbach | March 1, 2013 2:06 PM
Originally published at TabletMag.com
Yeshiva and poetry don’t go together. At least they didn’t in my high school.
Getting caught in my all-boys Yeshiva high school with a book of poetry was the equivalent of getting caught with your pants down in the first-floor bathroom stall that never managed to lock properly. My only introductions to poetry were the occasional poems an administrator hung on a bulletin board and the flirtatious gazes (I imagined) I got from a spiky-haired English teacher who was finishing up her MFA in poetry at NYU.
This partially explains my surprise when Aaron Roller, co-founder of the Yeshiva High School Poetry Slam, asked me to judge a competition. Aaron and I attended the same yeshiva high school; Aaron was more arts-oriented than I was and less concerned with fitting in. I probably smoked more pot than he did. When we met yesterday, the day of the slam, I brought up the lack of arts education in our own high school.
“That was the motivation,” he explained as we drove to SAR High School in Riverdale, where the contest took place. “Kids who are into art are usually a minority. There’s no shortage of teams for athletes.”
Roller, along with educators Hillel Goldman and Hillel Broder, launched the league two years ago. They typically run about three slams in schools across the tri-state area. He believes that the league is a testament to the success of yeshiva education. All three co-founders attended yeshiva high school.
“We’re in an education milieu that allows people to say, ‘This wasn’t in my high school education, but I want to bring it here,” he said.
Or as Broder, a teacher at SAR, put it, “I only learned I loved poetry when I was in college.”
As part of the competition, students from eight religious high schools created an original free-verse poem somehow related to the Purim and a pantoum.
What surprised me more than the existence of the league was how good the poets were. Some kids were just trying to get out of class, but some had genuine talent. Frisch student Tamar Palgon began her poem with a line I swore could have been in a modern anthology: “I immediately stopped listening to 50s music.” Zach Smart, a senior in SAR, gave a blistering account of the disappointing lives of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. Here is video of his performance.
Celeste Marcus, a student at the Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Philadelphia, repeated her pantoum refrain, “Surely Torah is more than a cold code of conduct,” until it became a bitter anthem.
My favorite poet of the event, Noa Baker, a tiny blonde also from Kohelet, rapped her free-verse poem to a hyperkinetic crescendo around the number fourteen for the Jewish date of Purim.
Some lines the students uttered stuck with me hours later as a rode the train back to Brooklyn. For every student who wrote an honest, but cliché poem about searching for God, there was a student who was having fun with words, like SAR’s Yishai Chamudot, who wrote “You look down the well of wishing you were someone else.”
In the end, the judges winged it, taking into account the number of schools, presentations and originality. We gave out five awards to the 44 brave high school students.
My high school managed to place two poets in the final round. I pushed heavily for one, perhaps undeservedly. I saw myself in the shaggy kid from my high school, bereft of swagger the other poets had, as he swayed back and forth when he read his poem, as if in prayer. He didn’t win.
By: Lori Lowenthal Marcus Published: February 22nd, 2013 Latest update: February 25th, 2013
Originally published in The Jewish Press
It wasn't exactly the Jets and the Sharks meeting for a rumble, but the competing schools had distinctive styles and there were some elements of scrappy street fighting vs. a more refined approach to battle.
On Tuesday, February 19, seven Modern Orthodox high schools from New York, New Jersey and as far south as Philadelphia, met at SAR High School in Riverdale, New York for a Slam Poetry Competition.
Slam Poetry, or "Spoken Word," is a form of oral expression that combines elements of traditional poetry and the urban music style of rap. The subject matter of Spoken Word is very often personal, dealing with emotional conflict, the generational divides or one's role in the larger world. It began in the mid-1980's and took hold in particular in Chicago, New York City and San Francisco. It has since spread all over the world, but remains an art form that appeals to and draws from a largely young, urban population.
As an experimentalist art form there are few rules: no props, costumes or music, and each piece can be only three minutes long. Spoken Word is performance driven - while the writing is an essential part of the finished product, the delivery - that is, the visual aspect - is critical. Spoken Word competitions - known as slams - take place in rounds with poets competing against each other, and experienced poets as judges.
The Yeshiva University Poetry Slam League had its roots in a poetry journal Mima'amakim, created by several Yeshiva University students including Aaron Roller, a former Rambam Mesivta student, and Hillel Broder, a current SAR teacher.
After Roller and Broder graduated, they decided to create a slam poetry league for the Modern Orthodox schools in the greater New York City environs. It combined elements of traditional slam poetry, but with a decidedly Jewish - not comedic shtick Jewish - bent. Roller and Broder joined up with Hillel Goodman, assistant principal of Rambam Mesivta, who was the first coordinator of the Yeshiva League.
Broder, who coordinates the SAR team, told The Jewish Press they view the YU Slam Poetry League as a continuation of the Jewish tradition of religious poetry.
"We look to Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the great Spanish poet of the medieval age, and his schools of poets and poetry," Broder explained to The Jewish Press. "We see David HaMelech, the great psalmist, as the progenitor of this project, writing with the knowledge that our religion's essential language of Tehillim is structured in the deep and condensed language of poetic expression."
Broder says he and the SAR administration see this form of artistic expression as "an opportunity for d'veykut, cleaving to God, developing awareness of the divine."
The League officially began a year and a half ago, with three competitions in the 2010-2011 school year; this year there will be four. Roller, the driving force behind the mima'amakin movement, is now the league coordinator and is always one of the judges.
At the February 19 Poetry Slam, 45 students participated in the first round, with fourteen moving on to the second round.
Roller explained to The Jewish Press between rounds that his vision was to create an opportunity for students to have an outlet for artistic expression, as well as a format for non-athletes to interact with students in the other Modern Orthodox schools, similar to what the athletic league provides for athletes.
Because of his own background - Roller is a published poet - he is interested in encouraging the Spoken Word students to learn about different forms of poetry. For each competition the students are required to create both a free verse poem and one that conforms to a particular verse format. Last year, the students had to write a ghazal, a Persian poetry form that Ibn Ezra and others adopted for various slichot. In another competition they had to use the haiku format.
At SAR on Feb. 19, the students competed in two formats, a free verse poem and a "pantoum," a poetic form comprised of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza, and the last line of the poem is often the same as the first line.
The Yeshiva Slam Poetry League students could have come from anywhere - the girls were dressed mostly in black, many with fashionably scuffy boots. The boys - other than wearing kippot - also could have been from any other high school, except that the tzitzit of some were visible, but no one's underwear was.
The content of many of the poems, however, dealt with various aspects of their relationship to God and to Judaism. "Six days a week, we wear a mask," recited Rebecca Rosen, a sophomore from North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck, New York. "Help me to understand your ways," implored Mira Schapiro, a junior at The Frisch School, in Paramus, New Jersey.
Some of the high school poets revealed critical questions about their faith. SAR's Yishai Chamudot called his pantoum "Son of Man," and described our world as a "pathetic excuse for Eden," infused with powerful imagery of "split identity, split sea." And the poem of Shira Levy of Central had a hipster edge. Her poem worked perfectly in the pantoum format, "but you won't because you can't" was a powerful, biting refrain.
Atara Goodman, a senior from Kohelet Yeshiva High School in suburban Philadelphia, received the award for Best Pantoum. She described the oddness of writing poetry on an iPad: "...because paper is how I pray, but the image of paper fades into a pixillated screen..."
"Monotony will certainly be the death of me, breakfast, lunch and dinner, why not dinner first?" asked Kayla Klein of Yeshiva University High School for Girls (also known as Central), whose sharp questions and clever wordplay helped her to advance to the final round of the competition.
In addition to SAR and North Shore, the other area schools that have been competing in the league almost from the beginning, also have a more traditional approach to slamming in that the emotion tended to be more muted, the themes more overtly religious and representational.
The students from most schools read from paper or from their iphones, as in the case of Moses Bibi, a freshman from Rambam who also advanced to the finals. Goldman proudly told The Jewish Press that Bibi is not only a star of the Rambam poetry team, which they call the "Poe Pack," he is also a member of the school choir and is on the hockey team. In fact, most of the Rambam Spoken Word stars are very involved with other school teams, including the college bowl and the mock trial and hockey teams.
The Kohelet Yeshiva High School team were the cowboys - their performance style was much more urban and theatrical than the other competitors. This is because their entree to this art form came directly from the world of Spoken Word, as opposed to being originally grounded in the more traditional styles of poetry or growing out of tehillim.
The Kohelet team's first coach, Cait Hubbard, came from California and had slammed from high school through college. She talked up the art form at the school, found the students wildly enthusiastic, and the club took off.
Hubbard could only find one Spoken Word league in the area, and it was only for public schools in Philadelphia. Problem: Kohelet isn't a public school and it isn't located in Philadelphia. After much wheedling by Hubbard, the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement agreed to allow this Orthodox Jewish private school from the suburbs to join them.
As Hubbard explained to The Jewish Press, "the Jewish kids looked very different: long skirts and kippot was not something the Philly kids were used to, and the clothing, attitude and the life experiences the city kids slammed about made a huge impression on the Kohelet kids." And despite the difference in backgrounds, when they were slamming, the kids appreciated each others' work based solely on the merits - religion, class and wealth played no role.
But PYPM met on Friday afternoons, and the restrictions the Kohelet administration had to impose, declaring certain topics and language inconsistent with Jewish values - were obstacles that could not be overcome. Rabbi Elchanon Weinbach, the Kohelet Head of School, found out about the Yeshiva League, and Kohelet joined.
The urban influence was obvious in Kohelet junior and team co-captain Celeste Marcus's presentations. She received the award for Best Performance.
While Yeshiva of Flatbush had only three competitors at this SAR competition, the two seniors, Jacob Tessone and Bonnie Azoulay, made it to the final round. Azoulay received the award for Best Poet.
Flatbush was introduced to Slam Poetry when the League's first competition was held at YU last year. Ariella Robinson, a teacher at Flatbush, told The Jewish Press that the school's "intention in participating in this league is to instill a sense of belonging and authenticity for our students within the world of poetry. Since the first slam, it is our students' confidence, passion in poetry, and attachment to a new community that has flourished immensely."
SAR's Zach Smart received the award for Best Free Verse Poem. A line from his poem was not only cleverly worded, but was something to which most in the audience could relate: "going where I need to go in order to get where I want to go, I've quite forgotten where I am."
The Frisch School hosted a slam poetry competition last year, and junior Tamar Palgon was the runner-up for Best Poet in this one. Her voice sounds like an instrument, and the "wake, wake, wake" refrain in her poem had a xylophonic quality.
Roller mentioned between rounds that although what drove him to set up the Yeshiva University Poetry Slam League was to create a social community amongst the modern orthodox high schools, the greatest source of satisfaction has been his realization that there are lots of really talented poets in the Modern Orthodox high school community.
Roller's right - these kids rocked.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com