Oakland’s new youth poet laureate embraces her Jewish and black identities

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A Jewish teenager has earned the title of Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate, the city’s highest literary honor.

Tova Ricardo, a 16-year-old rising junior at the Bentley School in Lafayette, beat 52 competitors for the title after impressing judges with her poem about the tiger tattoo on her grandfather, a veteran of the Korean War.

Tova Ricardo (holding check) with some other competitors and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (back row, center) photo/courtesy cy musiker-kqed arts

“I thought of the tiger tattoo that flaunted its paws across the forearms of bronze steel muscles that replicated scribbly lines to the six-year-old instead of contorted rivers,” Ricardo read. “The tiger tattoo who belonged to the southern rugged fields of southern rugged men that roared as a distraction at the family dining table as the seven-year-old spilled the rice and beans in the midst of admiring the ancient artwork.”

Ricardo, who identifies as black and Jewish, hopes to use her new title to promote diversity and acceptance in her hometown of Oakland.

“Oakland is a very diverse place and I think people love it because of that,” Ricardo said.

Ricardo said she draws inspiration for her poetry — which will be performed at schools and senior centers over the next 12 months — from her identity as a multiracial Jew.

Ricardo, whose mother is biracial and Jewish and whose father is black-Creole, has long been connected to Judaism, volunteering at her local Chabad and working with various Jewish organizations. But she has had to deal with questions about being black and Jewish.

“I would get stares,” she said, noting that she didn’t fit the “typical, ideal picture” of a Jewish person. “I’ve had to deal with a lot of backlash and people questioning my identities, and I’ve incorporated that fire into my poetry.”

The doubts didn’t stop Ricardo, who lives in the Montclair neighborhood of Oakland, from deepening her involvement with the organized Jewish community in the Bay Area. She interned at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation last summer and is now involved with Jewish Teen Foundations, a teen philanthropy project.

Ricardo said she sought out the federation internship because, while she always identified herself as part Jewish, she felt it was time to actually get involved “with other Jewish people.”

As part of her work, Ricardo conducted a comprehensive survey of organizations around the country that explicitly serve Jews of diverse backgrounds as part of their mission.

“Jewish people of color, there’s not a large representation of us in the media or around us. What I see around here is mostly white Jews,” Ricardo said. “It was just comforting to see that there were other people like me out there and my identity was valid.”

Ricardo began writing poetry in middle school. She also plays guitar and harp, but her interest in poetry has grown since she began high school. She said she uses her poetry to explore both her own experiences and issues in the wider world and sometimes, as in the case of the Black Lives Matter movement, the intersection of the two.

Peter Hagen, an English teacher at Bentley, told a reporter for KQED.com that Ricardo’s poetry “just ripped the doors off” of his class.

The Oakland Youth Poet Laureate competition began in 2012 as a joint project between the Oakland Public Library and Youth Speaks, a local organization that helps young people express themselves through spoken-word poetry. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf attended the final competition last month and presented Ricardo with a $5,000 educational scholarship.

“Poetry has been the one thing that has kept me sane on this crazy planet,” Ricardo said in a brief acceptance speech.

“Poetry lets me express my feelings through words,” Ricardo added in an interview with J. “I can say what I need to say. I don’t have to be sensitive.”

The Forgotten Willow

by tova ricardo

Merciless maggots squirmed across my room

in a pernicious dance

amongst the wrinkled white walls,

squealing like demonic plagues

beneath the creaking floorboards.

They peeked under my bed

till the sky heavily darkened

as my face was melting with delicate tears.

I called out,

I released a petrified howl

from my vocal dome

so that a barren basin

would rumble with great ease.

But leaves answered no call of mine.

An exhausted gurgle

upon my lifeless tongue

devoured by poisonous beasts,

merciless maggots

I’ve seen,

all too familiar and frightening

mind-racing, age increasing terror.

If I stared any longer,

I would have been stripped

of futuristic visions.

Leaves wanted no space of mine

you see,

leaves stuffed me in abandoned trees,

you see,

but I,

couldn’t breathe,

a veiled piece of the forest,

steep from sight,

no more a whimsical willow,

just bleak,

no more a whimsical willow,

just bleak,

you see.

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.