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Bust a Jewish Rhyme

Workmen's Circle gives a lift to the lyrical with a poetry slam series.

by Michael Aushenker

December 12, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Chaim "Lebo" Lieberman says that his Jewish-themed poetry is his "best stuff, my most honest stuff." Photo by Kelly Quagliotti

Chaim "Lebo" Lieberman says that his Jewish-themed poetry is his "best stuff, my most honest stuff." Photo by Kelly Quagliotti

Onstage, it's enough to give one empathy -- or Eminem-pathy.

While the Jewish poets performing at the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring's poetry slam are not exactly as ruthless as Eminem with his rhyming battles in "8 Mile," they also use wordplay as swordplay to explore issues of cultural identity and ethics.

"If you're only for yourself, who are you?

WHO are you?

Who are YOU?

If not now, when? If not here, then where?

If not now, then when?" rants Rick, a short, bespectacled man who takes the stage for seven minutes criticizing American and Israeli governments in "Democracy Now, Democracy Now."

He's pitted against Ruthie Buell, a raven-haired bubbie type:

"Will you kindly shut your mouth, says the penguin to the ocean.

You are spraying my tuxedo and I don't really like the notion."

Poetry slams are competitions, and Ruthie beats Rick: 9.15 to 8.18.

For years, poetry slams have become a staple in bohemian circles, further popularized by rap music. The genre has even made it to Broadway, with Def Jam Poetry -- an urban poetry forum created by Russell Simmons, brother of Run-DMC's Joseph Simmons and co-founder with Rick Rubin of Def Jam Records, the label that put rap on the map.

Urban poetry slams around the world, like this one at the Workmen's Circle, allow different groups and ethnicities to mine their cultural issues.

The Workmen's Circle slam is also a way to bring younger people to this nearly century-old bastion of Jewish culture and social activism, said Assistant Director Jenni Person, who has been at the circle since September, and serves as the event's slam master or host.

And it looks like she's succeeded. On this November night, the second installment of what is expected to be a regular series, some 20 people -- mostly in their 20s and 30s -- sip coffee at the Robertson Boulevard headquarters amid tables littered with advocacy literature on peace and human rights. An art exhibit themed "Globalization," featuring such imagery as humanoids sawing off their own limbs, adds a funky vibe.

The event is not only about Jewish issues, though. Person kicks off the forum with a demo round featuring a piece she wrote, "Take My Life ... Please!," a meditation on garage sales in Los Angeles and segues into her feelings about moving to Hollywood from Miami, which transforms her observations into commentary on Los Angeles as a city to reinvent one's self.

"We're all starting over," Person's poem ends, containing the promise of a new beginning.

For some, the slam is a way to vent emotions that have thus far remained private.

Brian Rochlin moves the room with his requiem for Eric Sand, a 29-year-old friend who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the day that the World Trade Center was destroyed.

"We were boys, smiling and jostling ...

We drank Sprite as if it bonded us ...

How do you love someone so freely so that even their faults are charmed?"

This is the first time Rochlin, 38, has read the poem in public -- until now he had only shared it with Sand's widow. Rochlin makes it to the final round, where he performs another piece, "Meet Me Half Way." "I started questioning what is my identity as a Jew. That was a theme that I wanted to explore," Rochin said.

More than just an artistic outlet, for some the slam also serves to unite like-minded people.

Workmen Circle members Ruthie Buell and her husband, Stanley Schwartz, love the slam because, as Buell puts it, "It's great to be around people who have an urgency about feelings and language." Buell is a born storyteller with a weekly Sunday night radio program on KPFK-FM 90.7, "Halfway Down the Stairs."

For Person, the founder, slams have even more meaning: While serving as a Miami Beach slammaster in 1995, she met her husband, Chaim "Lebo" Lieberman. "I met my beshert doing poetry, doing what I like to do," Lebo said.

They married the next year, and by 1997, Lebo had slammed his way to the national level and competed in Middletown, CT.

"It was an amazing experience," Lebo said of rounding out a four-person team in a 160-poet competition.

His Jewish-themed material "is my best stuff, my most honest stuff," Lebo said.

Rochlin said the slam format generates an energy that is dynamic and engaging.

"There's a certain elitism that I don't think is inherent at a poetry slam," Rochlin said. "It becomes a populist experience. There's power in words."

Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring will hold "Slam Shirim: A Poetry Slam for the L.A. Jewish Community" on Dec. 14 at 8 p.m.; and on Jan. 25, Feb. 15, March 15, and April 12 at 8 p.m. Open to the public. Participants may sign up at the event. For more information, call (310) 552-2007.

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