Torah with a twist in SermonSlam at the Magnes

His evocation of the mysterious blue light he saw from the steps of the Concord Pavilion, and his ensuing love-struck encounter with singer Stevie Nicks, helped Berkeley’s Michael Kaye win the West Coast’s first SermonSlam, held last week at the Magnes museum.

Kaye also riffed on the Passover paradox of liberation and slavery, focusing on rabbi and psychiatrist Abraham Twerski’s work with addicts.

SermonSlam competitors (from left) Joshua Krug, Max Cohen, Lisa Alcalay Klug, Ariel Wolpe, Yosef Rosen, Rebecca Marcyes and Michael Kaye photos/courtesy janet jett loeb

“When people share more of the broken, fragile, shameful parts of themselves,” Kaye told the audience of 70-plus, “they “transcend the narrow places” and discover their shared humanity. “Thank God for our deficiencies,” he declared.

Kaye was one of seven people competing in SermonSlam, a new performance event that is just starting to gain traction. Each took to the stage April 3 at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley to share original Torah interpretations, but in the style of a poetry slam or a “Moth” short story competition. The loose theme of the night was the Passover idea “out of narrow places.”

The point of the event seemed to be more in laying down a fine phrase, putting a new spin on the zeitgeist and offering up encouragement to friends than in taking home trophies — which, in any case, were SermonSlam T-shirts for everyone.

The three-judge panel consisted of Rabbi David Kasher of the Kevah education network, G-dcast founding director Sarah Lefton and Torah educator Frayda Gonshor-Cohen.

The event was serious and all in good fun at the same time. Kaye, for example, impishly implored Kasher to “find his inner Simon Cowell.” And the judges — duly impressed by most of the contestants’ verbal pyrotechnics — made up a handful of prize categories on the spot.

All the competitors were “moving, wonderful, funny and surprising,” Kasher said.

Judges (from left) Rabbi David Kasher, Frayda Gonshor-Cohen and Sarah Lefton

But Kaye “made us laugh and made us cry,” said Gonshor-Cohen, a Wexner Graduate Fellow who used to work in Ukraine for the Jewish Agency for Israel. “He wove together classical texts and contemporary situations in a very profound way.”

Kaye is a writer who has gotten ink in Rolling Stone magazine and a performer who created the live-audience program “Stories From the Shtetl.” He mixed Torah with seriocomic meditation.

Other competitors included Rebecca Marcyes, a self-described “local mother duck and obsessive existentialist.” The judges liked her delicate guitar-accompanied lyrics on the connection between being both “broken and free,” and they gave her a spontaneous award for “best phrase of the evening.”

Yosef Rosen, a graduate student in U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Jewish Studies whose research focuses on the Kabbalah, opened the show with a multimedia presentation on “Servitude and the Space of Song.”

Pop culture writer Lisa Alcalay Klug delivered the most traditionally in-your-face, slam-like challenge of the night with “Tikkun Yadayim/Call to Arms.” She bellowed: “What is your outstanding accomplishment? Is it feeding the hungry or feeding desire?”

All the while, Lefton was jotting down original turns of phrase while thinking, “Who’s my next narrator?” for an episode of G-dcast, a video Web series on Torah and other Jewish texts.

SermonSlam is a first public program from Open Quorum, an East Coast–based project that creates, curates and promotes Jewish ideas mainly online. While other slams are planned, fewer than 10 have been held so far, in cities including Brooklyn, Houston, Philadelphia and Jerusalem.

After the Berkeley event, emcee Jana Jett Loeb, one of the organizers, was ready to offer up guidance for other groups interesting in holding their own SermonSlams. In a community in which “everyone is engaging with Torah,” she said, “it only makes sense.”