Levontin 7 is one of Tel Aviv’s trendiest music venues, hosting frequent rock concerts, international DJs, and late-night dance parties. This past week, however, it was the site of a spoken-word poetry contest. The winner? Zvia Margaliot, an Orthodox Jewish woman. Margaliot only recently began competing in spoken-word competitions, featuring a form of poetry in which the poets perform their pieces as if they were dramatic monologues.
One of Margaliot’s inspirations is an artist named Pedro Grass, whom she saw the first time she ever performed slam poetry. She watched Grass perform a poem called “Entering the Central Bus Station.” In the piece, Grass speaks about his experience waiting in line to enter an Israeli bus station, during which he is asked by the security guard, “How are you?”
Grass, who has a dark complexion, interprets the question as “Are you an Arab?” He then continues to speak about another character he meets while on line: a young American woman who is a recent immigrant to Israel. He imitates her in a thick American accent, interspersed with Hebrew and English words.
She says to him “I know Jerusalem by heart,” and he responds that he does as well. But then he arrives at a deeper truth. The Hebrew phrase for knowing something by heart is “ba’al peh,” which indicates truth or knowledge emanating from the mouth with speech. To him, Americans seem to “know” from a place of deep emotion, while Israelis “know” by speaking, and are therefore left to interpret truth from people’s words. And, thus, when he is asked by the security guard, “How are you?” he responds “I’m OK.” But he and the security guard both know all too well that what he really intends to say is, “I’m safe to enter.”
In an interview with Ha’aretz, Margaliot says,
“Look, in my opinion the weakness of spoken word is that it sort of invites artists to complain,” she acknowledges. “They give you a platform, so kick them in the soft underbelly, stage a protest and all that. But Pedro doesn’t complain, he tries to achieve some kind of inner truth.”
Margaliot tries to realize that same “inner truth” in her poetry. In Levontin 7, her winning performance was comprised of two pieces—one called “Charity Will Save,” about her relationship with the Jerusalem poor, and one called “A Third Breast,” in which she said:
“May He be blessed and His name be blessed, who created His world/ With such fatal disharmony, with such total lack of coordination/ Between nothing and not a thing/ Eternity he gave to stones, and to words, to world-famous poets, the poor things. And to me he gave dishes,/ laundry, laundry, yes, why hide it/ And the nights that end only when the three of us are already exhausted,/ And to be the materials from which poems are created.” (Translation: Ha’aretz)
Although Margaliot is also a singer, she reserves her musical performances for all-female audiences. However, she has no problem performing poetry in front of male and females alike. She says, “I go according to the halakhah and there is no prohibition against spoken word, so why not?”
Some of her performances can be found on YouTube in Hebrew, such as this or this. For some noteworthy spoken-word performances in English, a good place to start is with half-Jewish Sarah Kay, a Brown graduate and famed slam-poetry artist. Her March 2011 TED talk “If I should have a daughter” was listed by Ben Affleck as one of the “Top 8 Talks That Amazed Me.”