There was shuckling, snapping and some good-natured hooting, all to be expected at a SermonSlam, a takeoff of the better-known poetry slams that take place worldwide.
This was Israel’s first SermonSlam, held Sunday night at Jerusalem’s Off The Wall Comedy Basement and drawing a diverse crowd — for Jerusalem, anyway — of rabbis and teachers, activists and poets, and the odd comedian.
Created by David Zvi Kalman, a PhD student in comparative Jewish-Islamic medieval studies at University of Pennsylvania, and a few friends, the group had been considering several ideas for expanding the reach of “an informed, literate, diverse, and artistic Torah,” said Aryeh Bernstein, the evening’s host. Their plan was to try and reach the wider American Jewish community by holding some kind of public forum and then disseminating the results via podcasts.
The SermonSlam, said Bernstein, was actually the “last idea hatched,” but the easiest to pull off and execute. The first one took place in Philadelphia over Hanukkah — Kalman’s current home city — and the recordings from the event were made available on iTunes and were the top trending Jewish podcast for several days, he said.
“Competition is,” deadpanned Bernstein, “unfortunately, weak.”
That said, Kalman didn’t want to lose the SermonSlam momentum, and while there is one scheduled in New York (on January 22), and others in the works throughout North America and Israel, he asked Bernstein to put one together in Jerusalem.
“Even though this is for an American listening audience, David Zvi figured that Jerusalem was the community that could most easily and successfully put together a good one fast,” said Bernstein.
And that he did. With nine performers, as well an impromptu performance and an encore by Bernstein, the slams — which focused on Exodus, the Torah portion of the week — were a mix of earnest poetry and word-rushing raps, both funny and sad, personal and theological. And in slam tradition, none could be longer than five minutes.
Three judges offered scores after each slam, the audience members snapping fingers and shouting encouragement for the favorites, but no score was lower than an 8.5 out of 10. After all, said Bernstein at the mike, “it’s a competition-ish.”
Still, you gotta be on your toes. It’s a knowledgeable crowd.
The next SermonSlam will be at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York, on January 22. There are currently events being planned for the next few months in Tel Aviv, Boston, Chicago, Providence, Columbus, Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Montreal and Toronto. Kalman is also hoping to expand the SermonSlam to high schools and summer camps.