Hasidic Poetry Slam

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OK, as promised:

This past Saturday night was the first Hasidic poetry slam in Crown Heights, at least in the estimations of everyone there. It started out as the brainchild of Levi Welton, a kid in his early 20s (and, incidentally, a rabbi) who does live theater and a weekly comic about the haftarah. He was raised in the Bay Area — his father is one of the Chabad rabbis there — and, on his last visit back, he happened upon the Berkeley Slam. He came back to yeshiva in Crown Heights all fired up and bouncing, ready to do this.

And he did. He enlisted the aid of a bunch of us — mainly, Mimulo, a flowershop and tea bar run by Hasidic hippies who were cool with opening shop at 10:30 on a Saturday night after Shabbat was out. And a bunch of us poets — coincidentally, I’d learned to slam in Berkeley as well — and Alona (who, for the evening, was known as Alona the Purple Prophetess), also a Bay Area alumna.

At first, I wasn’t sure whether women would be there at all. I pushed the question nervously. Levi barked out a laugh. “If they weren’t,” he said, “we wouldn’t have a show!”

It’s true that, even in the most right-wing of circles, there’s no halakhic reason why a woman can’t get up and launch a poem into a crowd. But most of what Jews do, Orthodox and otherwise, has next to nothing to do with halakha — it’s about social mores. (For that reason, perhaps, the poetry reading that Mimaamakim threw last month was overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly male-centric.)

But this was pretty incredible. Beside Alona, one super-Orthodox girl read a few short, funny, wry poems about being frum in spite of what everyone else around her thinks. This one bad-guy yeshiva kid in jeans got up and read a poem he’d written on the way over — it was honest and it was about love and being lonely and it was so simple and beautiful that, I feel like there’s no way to say this without being cliche, but literally everyone in the room was pushed to the border of crying.

And then, of course, there was the Russian Hasid in one of those Boro Park business-suits that all the real super-religious women wear. She pulled out a piece of paper, mumbled an apology into it — “I’m sorry, this is not how everyone else writes, but I am not like everyone else” — and then, no lie, busted out a hip-hop poem about the spirituality of taking the morning subway.

Awesome beyond belief. In a way, it was a more real poetry experience than any I’ve ever had — way back before avant garde poetry and university experiences were created, poetry was supposed to be the tool of the people. Think king’s courts. Think Shakespeare. It was Lost and Star Wars and Buffy and Lindsey Lohan’s relationship troubles all rolled together: it was drama and comedy and tragedy all together.

And, yes, even the fabulous Eliyahu Enriquez came in, and shot the video below.

Posted on May 21, 2009

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