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Modern Orthodox Students Meet to ‘Slam’ in Poetry Combat

The students could have come from anywhere, but the content of many of the poems dealt with various aspects of their relationship to God and to Judaism.

Award Recipients at Feb. 19 YU League Slam Poetry Competition at SAR High School

Award Recipients at Feb. 19 YU Slam Poetry League Competition at SAR High School
Photo Credit: Lori Lowenthal Marcus

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.

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.


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