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Slam poetry meets journalism in (Jew)nique show

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David Silverberg

For David Silverberg, Judaism was never about religion. He’s the kind of secular Jew who can easily be found in downtown Toronto: telling the jokes but avoiding the shuls, embracing the community without keeping kosher.

“I have a somewhat fractured relationship with Judaism,” he says. “I definitely felt guilt over not being as religious as my parents wanted me to be.”

But around two years ago, Silverberg – who has written as a freelancer for The CJN for more than a decade – decided he wanted to dive deeper into his culture.

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Inspired by some of the people he interviewed in these pages, he created Jewnique, a one-man show that highlights influential Jewish-Canadian trailblazers in a variety of fields. In it, Silverberg blends his love of slam poetry with his personal beliefs, in what he calls “performance journalism.”

He’s spent the last year interviewing subjects for the show, which will run one night only, on May 10, at the Al Green Theatre in the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto. In it, he will perform poems describing his interviews with seven people: Judy Feld Carr, who secretly rescued more than 3,200 Jewish Syrians in the 1970s and ’80s; Holocaust survivor Moshe Krause; musician David Buchbinder, the founding artistic director of Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival; and novelist Alison Pick.

“This project has made me realize that so many people come to Judaism via many different paths,” says Silverberg. “My way that I can give back and be more charitable to the Jewish community might not be through tzedakah always, or might not be through going to every Jew-do or every event in a UJA calendar, but by me finding my own way to it.”

For Silverberg, that path now includes poetry, which he’s been writing since he was 18. Burdened by the workload of Ryerson’s journalism school, he searched for a short-form creative outlet in his spare time and found it in poetry slams. He performed his first poem, a comic paean to Vince Carter’s armpit, at an open mic night around 2001.

Today, Silverberg is probably best known as the creator of the Toronto Poetry Slam, a major Canadian spoken-word competition and twice-monthly staple at the Drake Hotel.

So his credentials were strong when he applied for an Ontario Arts Council grant for Jewnique and sealed it, thus securing the project’s viability.

His first interview was with Krause. Silverberg travelled to his home in Ottawa to speak with him and his wife, Rivka.

“I don’t really interview people who’ve been through a lot of trauma,” Silverberg says. “So to hear someone be so blunt about what it was like to be under Nazi rule, to watch their family die in the Holocaust, to learn about the thousand prisoners who were burned alive every day in Bergen-Belsen – that definitely took a toll on me.”

All told, Silverberg estimates that he’s spent 40 hours on each poem, including research, interviews and transcribing.

And while the importance of some of his interviewees seems self-evident, others are less conventional choices.

David Buchbinder, for example, was a little confused when Silverberg asked to interview him for the show.

“I was just tickled by it,” says Buchbinder. “If you could look at my face, it would have had a quizzical look on it.”

Buchbinder nevertheless agreed to participate and the two engaged in a lengthy conversation about Judaism, klezmer music and how he got into his career.

He’ll be one of a few interviewees who’ll be in the audience on May 10.

“I know very little about it,” Buchbinder says. “It’s actually a nice thing to see a show that I’m involved in, in some way, and have no idea what it’s going to be.”

Jewnique takes place on May 10 at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto. The show is for all ages and tickets are $10. For more info, visit jewnique.brownpapertickets.com.