Arthur Levine is reciting a poem at the club Tonic on the Lower East Side. Triangles of shadow gather over his sunken eyes. He'll explain later how his Russian grandfather headed west when Bolsheviks tried to draft him, but right now his mind is focused on the crowd of 35 Jews, and a few curious gentiles, sitting in the audience. Levine, 34, writes five or 10 poems a sitting and looks like a cross between a young brain surgeon and an upper-echelon Russian gangster, but is in reality just a very well-dressed computer systems designer.
"I would drink of you in the night and explain things that echo through me."
It's a love poem. There is polite clapping.
"More on individual particularisms!" a voice yells. "Less gestalt!"
So begins the fourth-ever Jewish Poetry Slam in New York, an attempt to combat cultural diaspora with combat poetry. Slamming was invented 13 years ago, accidentally, by a Chicago construction worker and poetry enthusiast who staged an impromptu competition at a bar. Generally it's a rough-and-tumble, hip hopinfluenced form where competing poets are judged, Showtime at the Apollo style, by an alternately belligerent and appreciative crowd.
Jewish slamming, if the Tonic show is any indication, appears to be a more self-conscious variation of the original. This fledgling spin on slam poetry is the work of the Partnership for Jewish Life, a local group devoted to helping Jews in their twenties and thirties connect to their heritage in settings less formal than, say, a temple. But though it sounds like a grassroots organization, it's not. The PJL's sponsoring foundation is the Jewish Life Network, whose chairman, retired hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, was recently estimated to be worth about $500 million by Forbes. This summer, the PJL and the slam expects to relocate to its new $10 million West 67th Street cultural center, which will include a 120-seat auditorium, a coffeehouse, a beer and wine bar, and a 72-seat screening room. But for now, the slams remain mobile. The next is set for Tuesday at the Cornelia Street Café.
"We're including people in the Jewish context who have not been in that context since they were 13," says the PJL's creative and rabbinic director, Rabbi David Gedzelman. "Many people assume [Judaism] has, at best, a nostalgic value."
PJL's "Jewish context" encompasses activities as varied as Shabbat dinners, rock concerts, and cross-country skiing. Clearly, the low-key Gedzelman is not your grandfather's rabbi. He came to the PJL four years ago after working as rabbi-in- residence at the University of Judaism in L.A., where he also founded "a rock 'n' roll coffeehouse" called Café Hillel. Gedzelman has never been a synagogue rabbi, choosing instead to bridge cultural gaps between young American Jews and their heritage he calls it an "alternative rabbinate."
On this particular winter Wednesday night, running an alternative rabbinate proves unusual. Call it karma. Call it cabala. But Martin Scorsese is filming his next movie, Bring Out the Dead, on Norfolk Street, choking the whole block except Tonic with thick knots of cable and klieg lights. Scorsese controls the street, and Nicolas Cage, dressed as a paramedic, is brandishing a bat. How's a rabbi to compete?
"Marty," mimics one of the slammers from the crowd of poets and judges pressed against the window, inside the club, "what's my motivation?" Scorsese's redoubtable eyebrows arch toward the faces pressed against the club's windows. Surely he can't hear through the glass, the poets are thinking, as the director shakes his head glumly.
"We came all the way down here and I know it wasn't for Nicolas Cage!" says Pearl Gluck, taking command of the situation. Gedzelman heads the PJL, but takes a hands-off approach to the slams he's not the preachy type. Instead, he lets Gluck, a PJL intern, run the show. She is a 26-year-old filmmaker with a serious gaze and a serious purpose in organizing many of the group's cultural events: She grew up in Borough Park's hyperinsulated Hasidic community, left it at 15, and now considers herself just a Jew "without labels." "Using my art and writing is how I stay connected to my Jewish identity," she says.
"We're all new at this, so be kind!" she encourages the crowd.
And so the procession begins. A guy in a dark shirt with a white racing stripe recites a mock-paranoid rant against the government's "selling our dead letters to Palestinians, as well as hot Internet stocks." A girl named Miriam recites a poem about making a stained-glass window. Her tone is so breathy you could swear you were listening to NPR's Fresh Air.
Next up is Matthew Freedman, 27, an English major at Brooklyn College, though he seems more Brooklyn than English major. "I'd never heard of a poetry slam," jokes the bald, goateed, army-jacketed Freedman later. "I was hoping I'd get to beat somebody up."
Like many of the slammers, the Russo-Polish-Romanian-Czech (by way of Oakland) Freedman attends synagogue infrequently. "Pearl is a friend of mine," he says, explaining why he showed up. Onstage, he returns to a favorite theme of Jewish literature: masturbation. "Instead of semen in your hankie," he suggests trying "a NJ Transit bus seat" as an alternative. The crowd giggles its approval.
Between readings, Debra Eder sits in the second row with her sister, Melissa, leafing through a Barbie notebook thick with poems. Eder, 39, is of Polish-Ukrainian descent, but a native of New Jersey. ("Can't you tell?" asks her sister.) She started slamming four years ago at the Nuyorican Poets Café, the local temple of slam. However, there were times when she craved a different kind of audience. "She read a poem about the Holocaust," explains Melissa, referring to a performance of Debra's at the Nuyorican. "I think it was a little too intense."
And the PJL slam? "This is a group of Jewish people here to meet and mingle," says Eder. She makes the final round, and reads a poem about the time her Uncle Sigmund said she looked like the mother he lost in a concentration camp. Eder has a theatrical voice that rises and falls as she rocks on her black boots. The judges are polled: 7.5, 7.5, 6, 6.5, 8. Not bad. Later, after it's all over, Eder reflects. "I got very consistent numbers, but it's hard quantifying somebody's creativity."
The prize, a $35 bookstore gift certificate, goes to Freedman. Philip Roth would be proud. Self-gratification has won out over love ballads and war stories. Freedman converses with a small crowd at the bar, musing whether he will buy the work of any French writer "except Flaubert" or settle for a dictionary. In other corners, Jews are meeting and greeting. Cheese and crackers are disappearing. White zinfandel bottles are at half-mast.
"Look at everybody mingling, I'm so happy," says Gluck, pausing to whack the arm of Levine, who lingers shyly in his dapper leather jacket. "Go mingle, damn it."
The next PJL slam is February 16 at 8 at the Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia Street. For info, call 792-6272. Transcripts of the slams will be posted online at GenerationJ.com.
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