Jewish-Muslim slam poetry duo break stereotypes with words

‘We look at people for what they are, as opposed to what they’re supposed to be,’ say teen performance artists

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Amina Iro and Hannah Halpern 'spinning' words in a Limmud UK workshop (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Amina Iro and Hannah Halpern 'spinning' words in a Limmud UK workshop (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

COVENTRY, England — One talks about Allah and her mosque, the other talks about her synagogue and the Star of David. Together, they speak about faith, a powerful term when conjured in performance poetry by Hannah Halpern and Amina Iro, two college student poets who first met in a Washington, DC youth slam poetry team. 

This week, the two poets and friends were at Limmud UK, an annual Jewish learning event that drew more than 2,500 participants for a week of lectures, workshops, performances and discussions on a wide range of Jewish issues, ranging from culture, art and psychology to history and politics.

The two 18-year-olds held four poetry workshops, focusing on cultural differences, womanhood, identity and faith.

Sitting around a table, they taught participants the basic concepts of slam poetry, how to take concepts and long-held beliefs, finding synonyms and metaphors for those ideas and then shaping those words and terms into full-fledged poems.

“Who wants to go first,” Iro would ask, thanking each person after they had shared their written words.

The two teens come across as gentle souls, but their own poems are intense, even harsh at times. Iro’s poems, written in her cloth-covered journal, spoke about the difficulties of figuring out her place back home in Bowie, Maryland, and in her new home in Madison, Wisconsin, where she started college this year. Halpern, reading from her iPhone, talked about fellow shul members who assumed she would date non-Jews now that she wasn’t religiously observant and guys who hurt her emotionally.

Iro is a chemistry major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, while Halpern is a first year student at Oberlin College in Ohio. Iro wears a hijab covered with a thick, black wool hat emblazoned with a “W” for her school; Halpern wears oversized hammered metal discs in her ears and silver rings on her fingers.

When they first met both were in high school and ended up being two of the 12 competing members of Split This Rock, the competitive wing of the 2013 DC Youth Slam Team. Their calling? Poetry that called for social justice, evoking changes they wanted to see in the United States and beyond, said Iro.

The two connected over their commitment to religion, said Halpern, despite their obvious differences.

Iro is a religiously observant Moslem, a “BMW (Black Muslim Woman) from DMV” (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia), she quipped; Halpern is grappling with a college campus where many Jewish students support the Free Palestine movement and where liberal Israel advocacy group J Street is considered more moderate.

But when it comes to slam poetry, everything is legitimate.

“It’s about breaking stereotypes,” said Iro. “We look at people for what they are, as opposed to what they’re supposed to be.”

Both welcome followers on their Twitter accounts: Iro is @FlipsHijab; Halpern (@HanHalp) will be in Israel for the next few weeks, leading slam poetry workshops which she’ll announce via Twitter.

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