Promises of sermons may not always be a huge draw for college students, but Sunday night the Prince George’s Hall in the Stamp Student Union filled with students eager to hear their peers talk about religious experiences.
To be fair, the SermonSlam was hardly mere preaching.
Using a blend of the long-held Jewish tradition of sermons along with the practice of slam poetry, which stems from American hip-hop culture, artists and performers explored their Jewish American identity in a way quite different from “your grandma’s Jewish American culture,” said Joe Ehrenkrantz, a senior English and government and politics major.
“We’re trying to produce an avenue through which students can express Jewish American culture,” Ehrenkrantz said, “rather than just gefilte fish and matzo ball soup. Jews today have a different thing.”
In addition to being a slam poet himself, Ehrenkrantz is on the board of the Maryland Jewish Beacon, the group that organized the SermonSlam, which Maryland Hillel sponsored. The biannual event is the second of its kind, and it attracted more than 150 people with few seats to spare.
SermonSlams began in Philadelphia last year and have spread to various cities and communities, including College Park, as a public forum for Jewish artistic expression.
“It’s a series of events where Jews can get together and create art,” said Jonah Potasznik, a 2014 graduate who acted as the MC for the event. “What’s great about Sermon Slam for me is it’s really a manifestation of the innate value and innovation of Torah, of the scripture that we’ve had for many centuries that is constantly manifesting in different ways up to right now. We’re taking part in that tradition.”
Each SermonSlam revolves around one central idea. With this event’s theme – “Chosen?” – nine poets and 10 visual artists, whose works were displayed on the periphery of the room, explored the idea of the Jews being God’s chosen people and what it really meant to be chosen, both as an individual and as a community.
“If God chose us, why were we chosen to be driven out of every land we ever loved?” Gabrielle Greenfield, a sophomore journalism and Jewish studies major, said in her poem.
Tali Cohen, a sophomore art education major, spoke of the concept of Lamed-vavniks, 36 unknown righteous people from each generation, from Jewish mysticism.
Inspired by this idea, she submitted a drawing that included the portraits of several individuals.
“We have this duty to help the world as Jews and as people,” she said.
Ester Nehrer, a senior criminology major, said she came to see friends perform but left with a wider perspective on issues of Jewish identity.
“I thought it was really interesting,” Nehrer said. “As a Jew, I guess I think about it a lot on my own, so it’s interesting to hear other people’s perspectives.”
Yael Nagar, a senior government and politic and economics major, said she was inspired to be on the Beacon board because of the opportunity to put these big ideas on the table.
“I think it’s definitely important to have as many outlets of expression as possible,” she said, “especially with something like Judaism, like your religious practices, which many people just do because they were raised doing it and always do it and don’t really think about.”
Although she was always interested in theater, Leah Schatz, a sophomore elementary education major, had never performed poetry before, she said. However, she didn’t hesitate to have a chance at working through these ideas about Jewish identity on stage in front of a supportive community.
“I’ve never been [able] to [do] anything like this, but it was great,” she said. “It was like talking to a group of friends.”
Joe Zimmermann is a junior English and journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.