Yesterday I was asked to be a judge at the quarterly New York-area Yeshiva Poetry Slam. It’s a remarkable thing that it even exists, and the poetry that happens there is even more remarkable. I don’t know what I expected from yeshivas (that’s a lie: as a kid who grew up secular, knowing all the things I didn’t grow up knowing, and thinking of the gazillions of hours that I would have had to study as a kid in order to know all this stuff, memorize it, and then presumably at some point rebel against it).
Whatever I expected, it was most definitely not this. Upward of sixty kids freaking out in the best way possible, slamming verses, emoting honestly and vividly and with the kind of emotional vocabulary (and actual vocabulary) that’s masterful and honest and raw and stunning, all of this at once. One performer did a poem lashing out at J.K. Rowling in the best way possible — “You think you can define an 11-year-old kid by throwing a Sorting Hat on their heads,” she said (I’m paraphrasing; hers was tighter and angrier and more heartfelt; I’ll link the video if it gets posted). “Even at 11, I knew the sum of my parts was greater than one of four houses.” It was so good.
Another slammer did a poem called “Letter to Myself at 13.” She was probably like 15 years old. I was thinking to myself, what kind of perspective do you have two years later?, but not in the way that you think. She did have perspective. Her perspective and her insight were so clear. More than half my life later, I wish I had that kind of perspective, and maybe it’s just because you’re growing so fast and going through so many different things?
Anyway, all of this is scene-setting. I was asked to judge, and pretty honored to be there, along with fellow poet Robert Hirschfeld and fellow Hevrian MaNishtana. We’re sitting off to the side of the auditorium, frantically scribbling down judging notes (side-note: judging a poetry slam, or a good one, is one of the most masochistic activities one can force upon oneself; partly, how can you say one poem is better than another, any more than you can say one song is better than another?–it’s just that you’re more in the mood for one than another, and partly, they’re all so damn good). The kids are in the center, snapping and whooping at each other’s poems. The teachers are scattered amidst them. And there’s one black-yarmulked dude, older, in a black suit and a posture that basically screams, at least to a baal teshuva know-nothing like myself, you can’t do that.
He was pacing around the place like he owned it in that principally kind of way, first in the center toward the back, then winding around the clump of kids. He settled in the front, off to the far side–in other words, right behind me. And I got nervous, first for the kids (was he judging them in the not-by-the-numbers sense? was he going to flip out and get mad that one kid said the word “damn”?) and then for myself. I just did a reading of my new picture book for the performers. Was it inappropriate? I’m taking notes on all these performances. I might say something uncomplimentary about one of them. I might be scoring down his students or scoring up students from a rival school. I’m not in charge of the slam, but I allowed this to happen; I’m sort of an ambassador of poetry; what happens if poetry blows up or uses inappropriate language or becomes uncontrollable?
As if poetry could be controlled. No: I wasn’t worried for these kids at all. He’s around kids all day; he presumably knows more of what to expect from a poetry slam than I do. I was worried what what he thought of me, an intruder in the school. Even at 36 years old, an adult walks by me while I’m writing and my first instinct is to cover up my paper.
The truth is, I both love and hate that that’s true. I don’t want to be ashamed of anything I write. But I also don’t want to write anything I’d be ashamed of, and I am. I constantly am. I don’t want to be afraid of all the suppositions I leap onto this dude; I want to be the dude I’m making suppositions about, simple and pure and with nothing to fear, not even G-d, because everything I do is exactly what G-d wants.
The truth is, I want to be pareve. And I just know, the person that I am, there’s no way I will ever be pareve.
So I am happy for the man-in-a-black-suit in my brain to be constantly passing by me, looking at my writing, asking should I really be saying that or thinking that. It’s what keeps me from going full-on Tourettes, letting everything out uncensored. I remember having dinner at Guru Gil‘s house in Jerusalem, him saying that every word spoken should be words of Torah, and I wish I could be sure everything that comes out of me is Torah. Maybe one day I’ll get to that oneness, and it will be. Until then, I guess, that’s why we have editors.