Unorthodox spot for a slam: Berkeleys Beth Israel hosting night of spoken word

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A Berkeley synagogue will be transformed into a poetic and artistic haven Wednesday, Dec. 2, when it hosts not a religious service, but an evening of spoken word.

“We have a beautiful space and it’s not maximized during the week,” said Leah Safran of Congregation Beth Israel. “We want to use the space, invite everyone who wants to come and transform it as a coffeehouse with cushions, low lighting and curtains.”

Leah Safran

Safran, a board member of the Modern Orthodox synagogue, coordinated “Lights in the Darkness: An Evening of Spoken Word.”

“I’ve gone to poetry slams where I’ve been so inspired, I’ve come away just soaring,” Safran said. Yet the events rarely contain Jewish content or topics related to Jewish identity, she added.

So Safran decided she would create her own. She loves to write, but hasn’t done much since having three children. Still, she wanted to provide a platform for the many Jewish writers who never get published.

“Writers need a stage for their voice,” she said. “I know there’s an audience that appreciates that, and I’m one of those people.”

A dozen people — essayists, poets, performance artists, linguists and students — will read or perform at the spoken word event. The writers are all ages and come from several Berkeley synagogues, or are not affiliated at all.

“I wanted to have a spoken word event that speaks to the Jewish community — and when I say that, I mean the whole Jewish community, people from different shuls or those not associated at all,” Safran said. “I’m trying to give Judaism the meaning I’m looking for. Why do it if it doesn’t speak to me?”

The event is also a precursor to Chanukah in that the theme — lights in the darkness — parellels the hope found in the Chanukah story. Safran wants to make the holiday more personal for people by creating a space for them to reflect on the true meaning of the holiday.

Miriam Petruck, a linguist of contemporary Hebrew, will read two poems by Israeli poet Rachel Blaustein, which Petruck translated into English for the first time.

She intends to have a native Hebrew speaker read the poems — “Under the Skylight” and “Colors” — in Hebrew, and then Petruck will read them in English.

“Even a wonderful, beautiful, terrific translation is at best just a rendition of what it was that an author was trying to achieve,” Petruck said. “The audience should hear the original first.”

Tania Schweig will read an essay she recently recorded for KQED radio’s “Perspectives,”  which aired Nov. 20. The piece is about running into a childhood friend at a Berkeley supermarket, explaining that she’s now living an Orthodox life and hearing the incredulous “Really?” she has heard time and again.

Yet when Schweig described how she kept Shabbat (no phone, no computer, no car) the friend responded with, “Wow, I could use some of that in my life.”

Schweig, a mother of five, was struck with the realization that both Shabbat-observing Jews and Berkeley residents prize simplicity and community.

“Ever since choosing to live an Orthodox life, I have felt outside of the Berkeley norm for what’s acceptable spiritual practice,” Schweig said. “But recognizing this common ground makes my ‘out’ more ‘in.’ ”

The essay plays with this dichotomy.

“It will be awesome to have a creative outlet for Jewish writers and to have it be Orthodox-friendly,” she added.

Paul Panish, a retired actor and author who has long written poetry on the side, will read three of his poems at the spoken word event.

Appropriate to the event’s theme, the poems begin with a deep, dark story, but emerge with upbeat, lighthearted endings.

“You always get a deeper sense of people when you see what they’re writing, which is different than knowing them socially,” Panish said. “Because when people write, if they’re at all serious, they expose a different part of themselves whether they realize it or not.”

“Lights in the Darkness: An Evening of Spoken Word” will take place Wednesday, Dec. 2 at Congregation Beth Israel, 1630 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. $5. Information: (510) 843-5246.


Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.