Moments after a DJ stopped scratching turntables and playing hip-hop, Noa Baker stepped to the front of the Franklin Institute stage and began her poem about the hate that gay people often face.
“Do you listen when you’re told who and how to love?” the sophomore from Kohelet Yeshiva High School asked in the middle of her poem. “If I were gay, would I be the 16-year-old girl chained to her closet, would my chains break my spirit, would my chains break my soul?”
As Baker put her hands above her head as though she were chained, students in the crowd — black, white, Asian, Hispanic — snapped their fingers to let the poet know her words resonated.
Baker was one of four Kohelet students competing May 17 in the finals of the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement Slam League. It was the first round of the competition finals, and Baker’s performance allowed her team to advance to the next round.
This was the third year that Kohelet participated in the league, and the students had been competing every other week since February.
A former English teacher at the school had been active in poetry readings and slam league when she was a college student and introduced several students to the competition a few years ago.
Each poet had three minutes and if they went over that, judges docked them points.
By the time it was over, the Kohelet team placed second out of 18 schools, with eight making it to the finals. (Constitution High School in Center City won first place.)
The Kohelet students’ involvement appeared in some ways a study in contrasts, with students from a Main Line school competing in an artistic battle that had a gritty feel, where most of the poets alluded to life in urban, low-income areas.
While some students at the competition seemed free to operate at full throttle, getting graphic about sex and cursing without caution, the students from the modern Orthodox Jewish school had to make an impression with more restraint.
“They’re competing with one hand tied behind their backs,” acknowledged Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach, head of school at Kohelet.
“We don’t let our kids go out there and say sensationalist things or use inappropriate language. They have to participate in the world at a Torah standard, and they rise to that beautifully.”
That’s not to say the Kohelet students played it safe. Baker’s poem made reference to husbands lying to their wives and “YouTube suicides.”
Razi Hecker, a freshman, performed a poem about the pressures teenage boys face to be alpha males.
“So what if I’m laughed at because the only part of a girl I’ve felt up before is their heart,” Hecker said.
Weinbach said there has been internal discussion at Kohelet about the appropriateness of students participating in the poetry league. “It is not unanimous but the overwhelming sentiment was in favor of it,” he said.
“We read literature that uses all sorts of terminology that students wouldn’t use, but within the context, it is understood. Same thing here. The context is clear enough that we don’t see it as being a detrimental influence,” he said.
Kohelet students and faculty sat in the audience snapping their fingers at a poet’s clever rhyme scheme or idea, at times, offering encouragement when a competitor nervously searched for a forgotten line. When poems turned more R-rated, they put their hands down but did not appear startled.
For their part, African American students from Central High School and other institutions offered the emphatic sort of “yes” that one might hear during a sermon at a Baptist church when moved by a line.
Perry “Vision” DiVirgilio, artistic director of the poetry movement and the emcee of the finals, said poetry slam offers a rare brand of bonding, where people from disparate backgrounds come together.
“No matter whether it’s something funny like a Shakespeare spoof or something about a family member being in the DHS system,” he said, referring to the Department of Human Services. “No matter what it is, you have an army of kids behind you snapping, saying, ‘I got your back, keep going, we got you,’ and you don’t see that too many other places.”
Of Kohelet, DiVirgilio said: “Everyone looks forward to them spitting” at each slam event.
“Students from Philadelphia public schools get to hear the stories from Kohelet Yeshiva or Masterman, some of the better schools out there. It bridges the gap. It lets you know that, wait a minute, you’re going through some stuff like that, too? You may live there, you may have this faith, but we got the same problems,” he said.
Despite the obvious contrasts with the rest of the slam teams, members of the Kohelet team — Baker, Hecker, Celeste Marcus and Shim Dicker — said they felt fully engaged.
The Kohelet group and the entire league had “become a second family,” Baker said.
“I love the free expression. I love being able to get up there and express myself, see everyone’s different styles and learn from each other,” she added.
Outside the Franklin Institute, as Weinbach and others tried to hurry their delegation onto the bus to make it home in time for the start of Shabbat, a Kohelet student wearing a shirt with a logo of The Ramones, an American punk band, stopped to play ukulele with a student from Central High School.
Weinbach saw them and said, “That’s what it’s all about.”