“I’m wondering if I’m going to feel nourished at the end of this or emotionally ransacked,” Debbie Nehmad said as she surveyed the crowd gathered Thursday night at a Jewish community center in Washington Heights for a sermon competition known as SermonSlam.
Modeled after poetry slams, the SermonSlam aims to give Jews an outlet to explore Jewish thought and ideas through spoken word poetry—or as Joshua Schwartz, the evening’s host, described it, “trying to create spaces where creativity is seen as a natural outgrowth of Torah.”
The event in Washington Heights was the second SermonSlam in New York, after one last winter in Brooklyn, and featured 16 performers from a range of ages, careers, and religious backgrounds. Educators, business professionals, and students gathered in the dim, yellow-bricked room around circular tables. The slammers took turns, with men dressed in outfits spanning from hipster—oversized sweaters, heavily framed glasses, and colored jeans—to observant, with bushy beards, yarmulkes, and dangling tzitzit. The women got onstage in jeans and cute tops, while others wore knee-length skirts and long sleeve tops; one even donned a headscarf.
Their given topic was “freedom”—chosen in accordance with the spirit of the Passover season. Two slammers were still just in high school, including the second place winner, Yael Marans, a sophomore with a mane of dark curls and an intense delivery worthy of Lorde. “Baruch atah Hashem,” she began, “do you want us walled behind the giants of the past, or just not to move to fast with change?”
Performers had different approaches to delivering their sermons, but their purposes were the same: strengthening Jewish identity through art. “Have you heard the one about how many Jews it takes to achieve freedom,” slammed 23-year-old Jina Davidovich, consistent with her message about the role of humor and Jewish identity.
“Freedom has died many times over,” said Mijal Bitton, taking a different interpretive approach to freedom than Davidovich. Bitton, who immigrated to the United States with her parents from Uruguay when she was in primary school, recalled walking into a library in the U.S. for the first time when she was 11 and removing her shoes for the sole reason that she could. To her, it proved that America was, as she exclaimed, “The land of the free!” But Bitton lamented the lack of social freedom she has seen as an adult. “Freedom dies,” she went on, “when we lose the ability to love she or he who is different.”
Mordechai Martin—who introduced himself as Mo—was the evening’s winner. He struck the crowd with his unique, heartfelt freedom-sermon, which intertwined ideas about the freedom of the Jews with his own experience at a mental health clinic. “You are, the doctors declare, free to go,” Martin said, tying his themes together in a way that made his sermon relatable both on a personal and religious level.
SermonSlam is the brainchild of David Zvi Kalman, a 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate in Jewish and Islamic law at the University of Pennsylvania. The idea, he explained, was to connect Jews who might not attend traditional Shabbat services with the experience of hearing a traditional d’var Torah. “I see what were doing as sort of developing mainstream Judaism, which just looks like this, and has looked like this for a while,” he said.
This SermonSlam was one of two last week; another was held in California, in anticipation of the upcoming holiday. Future slams are scheduled for Providence, R.I.; Chicago; Washington; and Boston.
At the close of the show, those who were at the New York program seemed satisfied with their spiritual spoken word adventure. “A d’var Torah is a poem about God,” said Raphy Rosen, a student at Columbia Medical School, and a first-time attendee. “It’s publicizing the word of God.”
Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance religion reporter. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Diplomat, among others. Follow her on Twitter @rdbenaim.