HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


The Yeshiva Poetry Society: A Pedagogical Model for Jewish Slam Poetry

by Hillel Broder and Aaron Roller Issue: Art and Aesthetics

In 2013, a YouTube video of a young man in a yarmulke performing slam poetry went viral, clocking close to 400,000 views within a month. It opens, “There’s someone I know who’s slow to commend and quick to condescend.” Ethan Metzger’s counterintuitive poem is a whirl of internal rhymes and pronounced rhythms addressing institutional brainwashing, positive parenting, Jewish identity, and emotional maturity—a grand synthesis of typical slam poetry tropes.
 

The video was recorded as Metzger competed in the Bronx Youth Poetry Slam, a qualifying competition for a citywide slam competition. But he initially crafted and refined his poem for a modest but popular extracurricular activity: a yeshiva poetry slam, organized under the umbrella of the Yeshiva Poetry Society (YPS) and hosted by SAR High School that spring.


YPS is a program that hosts regular poetry slams on Jewish themes in a variety of poetic forms across a wide swath of secondary day schools in the greater New York metropolitan area. Created to fill a gap in the Modern Orthodox educational environment by providing an extracurricular activity for creatively inclined students, YPS was launched during the 2010-11 school year. The first slam was attended by twenty students from four schools, and the program has grown in size and popularity. There are now an average of five competitive poetry slams a year with close to eighty poets from ten area day schools at each competition. YPS’s success has enabled the creation, performance and even publication of thousands of Jewish poems.


With such a cultural boom, YPS has also come to realize its usefulness for the greater project of Jewish education and the particular projects of Jewish artistic, rhetorical, experiential, spiritual and contemplative education. In what follows, we distill goals for Jewish performance poetry through the broader lens of performance poetry pedagogy.

 

JEWISH SLAM POETRY: CONTEXTS AND GOALS


A critical goal for performance poetry is to create a safe space for personal expression—in this case, within Modern Orthodox high schools. The importance of holding these slams on school grounds, often in the middle of the school day, cannot be overstated. While YPS and the schools hosting slams do not explicitly encourage subversive or provocative topics, students often express a subtle critique of cultural and even religious norms and values. YPS slams have played host to poems about religious doubt, eating disorders, the dissolution of intense friendships, and teenage romantic angst, topics sometimes addressed in Modern Orthodox high schools but often not given center-stage for personal narrative and public sharing.

 

We argue, however, that the outcome of such a subversion is entirely positive, and for at least two reasons: students’ struggles and complex identities are validated through a shared community of art and discourse, and students develop and refine their religious and cultural values through the performance of their inner challenges. We have found that students achieve a key goal of Jewish education: relating personal experiences to Jewish texts and traditions in an articulate form and rhetorical forum.

 

JEWISH POETRY AS JEWISH COMMUNITY


In the past, day school might have seemed like the wrong place to express a fraught and critical personal view, and the lack of an outlet for personal ideas and emotions (challenging or otherwise) may have lead students to feel stifled, isolated and searching for alternative avenues for expression. By giving voice to the full range of ideas and emotions that students are struggling with, a poetry slam creates a space that validates students’ experiences that are rarely aired within the formal confines of a high school.


For artistically inclined and linguistically mature adolescents, high school in general, and Modern Orthodox school even more, can be a lonely place. Therefore, the gathering of students that occurs during the slams provides not simply a forum for competition; it offers them a community of peers. At our slams, to foster such a sense of a shared artistic community, we explicitly frame the “society” of YPS as fundamentally supportive and kind, a practice for transforming the slam space of poets working through life challenges into a “healing space.”


Over the course of the year, consistent slams, social lunches, and a robust online presence (Facebook group, webpage, online journal) ensure the continued contact and genuine admiration among poets across the entire spectrum of yeshiva high school education. And perhaps most importantly, the slam poets whom we have interviewed acknowledge the importance of an “affirming poetry community” that allows them to express subtle cultural critique without needing to apologize or justify their complex identity struggles.

 
JEWISH POETRY AS RELIGIOUS PRACTICE


Beyond making room for a shared Jewish poetry community, YPS insists on challenging students to use their Jewish knowledge and religious experiences as inspiration for their work. We believe that it is insufficient for schools to teach Bible and Talmud as one part of a dual curriculum and then teaching Robert Frost and Shakespeare later in the afternoon. Through tackling the interplay between Jewish education and literary strategies, students see the connections and the values of both streams in their own lives. For example, through slams with themes like “Masking,” which was held near the holiday of Purim, or “The Stranger,” which challenged students to discuss the obligation to love the stranger in light of the US immigration debate, Jewish student poets opened up to the complexity of their Jewish identities as performative, layered, and consisting of multiple and often irreconcilable traditions.


In addition, YPS’s pedagogy offers a useful tool for experiential Jewish education. We embrace the history of the form and dialect of the spoken arts as one that follows the vernacular tradition of prayers, sermons and spirituals. At least once a year, we require that students write their work in the form of a prayer (such as a ghazal, piyyut or tehillah) or patterned after a biblical model, thus relating their personal experiences to their traditions through intentional, even spiritual speech.


As both a founder and team coach, I (Hillel) often realize this end by starting my students with a familiar biblical, siddur, or rabbinic text and challenging them to then translate the text in English verse, with an eye for broken lines and fresh, personalized diction. Writing their midrash, their kavvanah, of a classic text in verse often frees students from the constraints of prose and conventions of grammar, allowing for the vocalization of fresh, catchy and  memorable cadences and phrases.

 

Such a writing practice, though in service of eventual performance, acknowledges as well the development of theology and maturation of God perspective in adolescence. Prayer, for example, becomes less of a way to bend God’s will to one’s own and more of a method to express thoughts, feelings, questions and even confessions with explanations. The deliberately crafted poetic practice of each student—their pleas to God, their personalized Tanakh poems— become the critical and overlooked work of prayer journaling, of writing their own kavvanot, intentions, into the unforgiving ritual of their daily, mandated prayer routine, as well as an expression of the complexity of a biblical character, chapter, or verse.
 

JEWISH POETRY AS PUBLIC SERMON


Jewish performance poetry highlights the expected and exercised but often untaught skill of public speaking within a variety of Jewish settings. Call it the scripted dvar Torah or the extemporaneous speech on a shabbaton—the essential skill of relating personal experience to a great textual and cultural tradition through a compelling rhetorical performance is a lifelong practice in a variety of Jewish settings.


Here as well, Jewish poetry slams offer the students training in public performance and rhetorical planning. To cite one example: in the first-ever high school sermon slam on the topic of tzedek, co-hosted by SAR High School and Jewish Public Media, students’ righteous protests constructed in free-wheeling verse transcended the conventional dvar Torah or formulaic pulpit sermon. They were, in their best form, prophets preaching, protesting, and even mourning, as “amanuenses of current times … offering poetic renderings … of their permanent place in history” (Cynthia Biggs-El, “Spreading the Indigenous Gospel of Rap Music and Spoken Word Poetry”).
 

CONCLUSIONS


Performance poetry pedagogy offers an important intervention in Jewish arts education, and Jewish education, generally speaking. When students are challenged to produce and perform original poems, they discover a distinctly Jewish community of artistic rhetors, articulate personalized critiques and expressions of their tradition, and exercise public performance in a reflective and rhetorical manner.

 

At the nexus of varying educational traditions and pedagogies, Jewish slam poetry offers new inroads into areas beyond its marginal scope: personalized and articulated experiential and contemplative education around the siddur and Bible; institutional, yet holistic integrity of expression and personality, beyond the often bifurcated integration of curriculum; and, perhaps most ambitiously, birthing a new community—and generation—of religious poets.
 


Examples of Poems from Yeshiva Poetry Society


My Parents Brainwashed Me
By Ethan Metzger

There is someone I know who is slow to commend
But quick to condescend
Who is reluctant to lend a hand
but quick to point and laugh at those who need one
One day I was in school, in class
Explaining my Judaism
When this person has the audacity to exclaim,
“You know you’re only Jewish because your parents force you to be.
I mean, it’s all fake. You don’t pray to God because you want to,
You pray to God because your parents made you think you have to.
You don’t keep any of the laws of your own free will, Your parents just made you feel guilty if you didn’t keep
them.”
My classmates smirk.
“Your parents brainwashed you your whole life, Made you think you were doing God’s work,
But they were just imposing restriction upon restriction; You don’t have any real conviction of your own.
You don’t really know anything about anything.” A silence swept over the class and
I could sense all my friends look at me
As to how angry I am.
I felt like this (unintelligible) went after me
And more importantly, my parents.
 
“Excuse me?” I thought, “My parents brainwashed me?” I had to think of a response, but
The more I thought, the more I realized
That this student actually had a very valid argument. I thought to myself,
“You’re absolutely right. My parents did brainwash me. From the time I entered this world, my parents brain-
washed me.
As early as I can remember, my parents were brain- washing me
To have respect for other people, for their belongings, for myself.
When I was little, they corrupted me into thinking that
I need to treat everyone else how I would want to be treated,
No matter what.
My parents programmed me to believe that
I should stand up for someone if that person were being picked on
And that I shouldn’t be a bystander if
I could stop bullying from taking place. My parents brainwashed me?
Yeah. My father twisted my infant brain in such a horrific way
That he made me value my integrity, and
To make matters even worse, He led by example.
 
And my mom? She incessantly told me as a child Again and again and again to ‘do the best you can’ And that idea has become so ingrained in my mind That I don’t define success as whether I get an A, But whether I gave it my all.
My parents perverted my way of thinking.
Caused me to believe I need to be accepting of other people and their beliefs.
They contaminated my childhood with models and actions about
Love and Faith and Character, and
Yes, Religion, too.
And I’m sorry for you that your parents
Really didn’t infect your DNA with any of these ideals.” But, I didn’t say any of that.
Because my parents also polluted my conscience Into believing that I shouldn’t judge someone until I walked a mile in their shoes
Which makes me think that God must run marathons each day.
Quite frankly, I don’t have the stamina for that. But here’s what I did say,
“You can call it brainwashing if you want. That’s fine.
I call it: Teaching.”

 

To Those who Chose
Between Emunah and Apathy

By Shira Levy
 

You would not recognize me,
bent over a Talmud like it has a secret I am entitled to. I’m afraid of what you would say I if I told you
you were cheated out of something you deserved.
But your father and those men were trying to preserve a religion that hadn’t made room for our position.
A letter to a generation of girls who would not recognize this one, I will call you Sara.
Dear Sara,
I don’t know if I am more afraid of you searching and not finding any trace of femininity,
or finding your own reflection in me.
Our disparity both saddens me and comforts me, and I feel like I owe you some sort of apology.
My dear Sara,
You are a mother to me in all the ways that don’t matter. I do not look like you, or act like you,
I will not fill the roles you are accustomed to. Sara, I still think of you.
Every time I open an untouched Gemara

I see the prints your longing eyes left all over its virgin spine.
How sad it is to see a book stand taller than the girl who cannot reach it.
How sad it is to see a lover who cannot be courted by the one who loves it
Sara,
I want you to be proud of who I am allowed to be. I did not fight for this right,
it was handed to me.
But these beit midrash walls are calling to me.
In so many ways I am making up for your lost time.
So Sara,
If you are still looking,
you will find me with a spine stiffer than my book. Pouring all this femininity into a chakira tree.
My makom in this beit midrash is the only nafka mina between you and me.
And Sara, I’m sorry.
Because these days leaders like Rabbi Brovender will say that “in our modern orthodox community, the alternative to advanced Talmud Torah is not Emunah, but apathy.”
And you were denied the right to intellectual honesty. Sara hear this apology:
I am working towards everything they didn’t let you be.


Biur
By Moses Bibi


I wrote confessions on pieces of pita
I collected the pride
The guilt
The insecurity
Poured a little lighter fluid for good measure
Struck a match on my fingertips
The bread burned
Sparks skipped again and again
And I felt
Every one of them
I may not have been a slave in Egypt
But I felt just as repressed
Every time I looked in a mirror
I saw something that my mom didn’t raise me to be
I saw someone who threw away more

More than his aspirations More than his friends More than his family
I saw someone who threw away god
I saw that boy who lost himself the first time he forgot to put on tefillin
Acquainted the kid who cared more about his gemora grades than what college he was gonna get into
Barely recognizing how absent I’d already let myself become
I developed habits So I burned them Not for the first time
But god willing for the last

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Art and Aesthetics

The study and practice of the arts can serve as a powerful vehicle for learning. This issue presents ways that the arts can deepen intellectual inquiry as well as sparking creativity, engage students' hearts and minds in science, literature, and all aspects of Jewish studies, expose learners to provocative, contemporary issues of culture and politics, and draw meaningful connections across the curriculum and among people.

 

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