Ever heard of a ghazal?

Probably most of the local yeshivah high school participants in two “Poetry Slam” events did not know what it was until a short time ago, either. Now, however, the Urdu word – which describes a short lyric poem composed of a series of five to 15 couplets – is part of their vocabulary, as is “sonnet” and “free verse.”

For Frisch School English teacher Meryl Feldblum, the Poetry Slam serves two purposes: bringing together students from different schools for a literary event; and creating the next generation of writers.

“If they’re not encouraged to produce their own writing, why are we teaching literature?” asked Feldblum. She organized the fourth Yeshivah High School Poetry Slam – the first at Frisch – in April with fellow English teacher Rabbi Neil Fleischmann.

Given the event’s proximity to Pesach and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), the suggested theme was “redemption.”

“We’re producing not just future poets, but future Jewish poets,” stressed Feldblum. “We wanted them to explore their Judaism.” Because the slam took place the day after William Shakespeare’s birthday, each participant was required to write and present one sonnet and one free-verse poem.

Frisch senior Emily Rose Stone took the prize for best sonnet (see box) and was the overall winner of the Poetry Slam in February at Yeshiva University High School for Boys. The winning poem was a ghazal on the theme of “masking,” since it was around the time of the Purim holiday.

“I was never into poetry, but Rabbi Fleischmann told me about the slam at YUHSB and I thought I’d give it a shot,” Emily said. “Because I had a great experience at that one, I knew I wanted to do it again. I love poetry now and I have started writing, but only because of the Poetry Slam.”

“It was a ton of fun for the students, and for myself,” added Feldblum. “It’s a great venue for students to share poetry and get feedback. It raises the bar for them because they get good, innovative ideas.”

Seven Frisch students participated along with 30 guests from the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, YUHSB, Rambam Mesivta High School on Long Island, and the Yeshivah of Flatbush.

“Every sort of activity is available for yeshivah high school students – newspaper, debate, mock trial, sports, Model U.N. – yet something like writing is such a wonderful thing and no extracurricular activity is built around it,” said Aaron Roller, founder of the Yeshiva High School Poetry Slam.

Before graduating from Yeshiva University in 2004, Roller was co-editor of “Mima’amakim,” an intercollegiate Jewish poetry journal.

“I know that kids interested in the arts are frequently in the minority in their schools, and could benefit from meeting kids in their interest group from other schools,” Roller said.

Working with a teacher at YUHSB and the assistant principal at Rambam Mesivta, his alma mater, Roller organized a test slam at Rambam last year. In 2011-2012, there have been three poetry slams. He and Dena Weiss, a Frisch graduate and former co-editor of “Mima’amakim,” serve as judges.

“Every time, the judges and teachers feel so inspired and excited,” said Roller. “The goal is to get it to be a regular event on the schools’ calendar and create a Facebook site where students can choose to post poems and comment on them.”

Joel Krim, a TABC senior from Teaneck, was studying poetry styles and rhyming schemes in his Advanced Placement literature and composition class, and thought the slam would be a good venue to share his writings with a wider audience.

“I enjoyed the social aspect – the chance to get together with kids from other schools and connect with one another’s creative sides, outside of sports,” he said.

Joel used the theme of redemption to write a free-verse poem (see box) about the seasonal death and rebirth of grass – a prominent metaphor among biblical prophets.

“We give them themes meant to elicit an awareness of strong traditions of religious poetry in Judaism, which isn’t taught often,” said Roller. “Religious life isn’t about repression and no room to question. The Modern Orthodox community presents an alternative that this exemplifies. The desire to express themselves is there; we just created the forum to do it.”

“I’m No Shakespeare”
By Emily Stone
In Iambic pentameter I start

But I CANNOT TAKE IT ANYMORE!

I cannot express what’s in my heart

For I am bound to lines ten plus four

The rules are confining and cold

As my true sentiment is repressed

See, I’m not one to fit a mold

As you have already guessed.

So I apologize to the judges

I mean no disrespect

I just usually avoid trudges

Even if it might seem incorrect

I am no Shakespeare, you must understand

For I find the sonnet writing process very bland.

“Green Grass”
by Joel Krim
Green grass out on the lawn how do you glow

Brilliant shades of lime and harlequin

All thanks go to the sun that shines to low

And illumines you like father to kin.

But skies cannot forever be azure

As shadows creep and blot out your sunshine.

Jet-black clouds hum – cutting you off for sure,

Discharging searing rain with bomb-like whine

That detonate with thunder claps of doom.

And wind, it howls, uproots newborn lilacs.

Then all is still, yet you are left in ruins:

Mired in waste from this deadly attack.

But clouds part to show sun ever so slight.

Though not sure why – you rekindle your light.