Finding meaning through slam poetry: Sermon Slam brings forth deep Jewish experiences

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By Jacob Schaperow, editor-in-chief, @jschap1

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JLIC educator Shira Neuman spoke about how her perception of feminism has changed from her days of attending an all-girls high school to becoming a rabbi’s wife. Jacob Schaperow/Mitzpeh.

 

The Prince George’s Room of this university’s Stamp Student Union looks more like a New York comedy club at night with its microphone set up centered in front of a dimly lit brick wall. The more than 100 students, parents and alumni present listened to presentations tending from lighthearted to brick-heavy, all of which left serious messages about the presenters’ experiences with Judaism, God and redemption.

Sermon Slam is an event that mixes spoken-word poetry with exploration of Jewish identity. For an hour and 15 minutes last night, nine students and one Jewish educator stood up at the microphone to share their feelings on topics like whether a rebbetzin can be a feminist or grappling with unanswered prayers for a dying sibling.

In the past, the student group Maryland Jewish Beacon organized Sermon Slam, in spring and fall 2014. The fall event’s theme was “Chosen.” Since the Beacon foundered last year, a new student group called LAVI picked up the event, choosing the theme “Redemption” based on its connection to the upcoming Passover holiday.

First-time slammer sophomore Leah Prince said she’s always struggled with reconciling her religious beliefs with those of her family. When one of the event sponsors asked her to help find people to participate in the slam, she said she knew she had a strong topic to speak about.

“I just stayed up really late one night just writing,” Prince said, “and then I practiced with someone else who knows slam poetry, and then she gave me some tips, and then I just rewrote the whole thing, and I just kept saying it over and over again to myself, and eventually the emotions came with it.”

Prior to the poetry slam, student artists exhibited pieces connecting to the theme of redemption. Freshman letters and sciences major Zev Shields drew “Ladder of Progress” using the Android tablet app ArtFlow. The drawing shows a man climbing through a hole in the clouds into a brightly lit sky.

“I don’t think that redemption is somebody coming down and saving you from anything,” Shields said. “I think it’s much more of a personal, difficult thing to accomplish, so I tried to show somebody who’s already made an effort to do it themselves.”

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Freshman Zev Shields, left, stands by his work, “Ladder of Progress” at the pre-slam art exhibition.

“The Flip Side of Redemption” by freshman studio art major Sarah-Leah Thompson showed a different perspective, with a bandaged hand that alternately welcomed or shunned depending on which way the viewer rotated it.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about what I thought would embody the idea of redemption, and I guess, ultimately, I came to the idea that redemption is essentially God extending a hand of offering, and saying ‘Yo, come with me and let me take care of you,’” Thompson said.

LAVI would be interested in putting on the event again, LAVI president Alyssa Gabay said. Videos from some past Sermon Slam performances can be found online on Jewish Public Media’s YouTube channel.

“We thought that it was very befitting that LAVI, a group that’s dedicated to helping individuals find their place in Jewish history, take part in Sermon Slam,” said the sophomore history major, “that we take this over because people really got to express various aspects of their Jewish identity, look into it more.”

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