My week at Limmud

January 4, 2011

Well, it’s been a few days since Limmud ended and I’ve just managed to get my digestive system back to normal.  Don’t get me wrong – the catering team did a fantastic job making sure we were all well fed, it’s just that, well, there’s a lot of bread isn’t there?  Athletes preparing for a major championship could have done a lot worse that to come to Limmud for some carbon loading.

Then again, carbon is what we all needed in order to fuel our way through the relentless programme of sessions.  If you’ve never been to Limmud you really must experience it.  Something like 2,500 Jews eagerly buzz around the university campus, moving between rooms, lecture theatres and studios, like bees in the height of summer desperately gathering knowledge nectar and cross-pollinating ideas as they wend their excitable way through the week.

Even an old cynic like me finds it difficult to poke fun, which is why that stuff about the food is probably the worst I’ll say about it (apart from my take on the final gala performance which I’ll come to presently).  Limmud is nothing but a great thing for and by Anglo Jewry, possibly our greatest export to the Jewish world, and certainly something to be proud of while our religious leaders are busy embarrassing us by spending fortunes trying to stop Jewish children go to Jewish schools, and our lay leaders are smashing each other over the head about the rights and wrongs of criticising Israel in public.

It’s interesting that it’s the young leaders of our community who put on Limmud.  Clive Lawton is the oldest person associated with the organisation (by about 50 years, I’d say) and, let’s face it,  he’s in denial; he still thinks it’s 1968.   What is truly remarkable about Limmud is that it’s only the bloke with the big sideburns who is paid.  Everyone else is a volunteer.  Everyone.  Given how complex and enormous the event is, this simply amazes me.  And it’s not just conference – there’s the summer hippy festival as well as several day Limmuds across the country throughout the year.  All of them completely volunteer driven. This culture of generously giving time and effort is, for me, what being Jewish is really about and we should be proud that we have brought up a generation of young people who appear to lack the selfishness that is all too prevalent in the wider society.

And let’s not forget Limmud International.  No, I’m not talking about all the countries now adopting the Limmud model and putting on their own magnificent events.  I’m talking about the number of foreigners coming over to the UK for our showpiece event.  Not only did we again enjoy the wisdom of speakers from around the world, I think there was an unprecedented number of overseas delegates this year.  Certainly it seemed impossible to attend a session without hearing the voice of at least one of our cousins from across the pond, and I’m not talking about the IRA, the Invasion of Rabbis from America, I’m talking about normal people.

With almost 1000 sessions there’s bound to be some poor ones – that’s only to be expected, especially as there is virtually no quality control at the organisational level.  People vote with their feet.  In general I was impressed; I only walked out of one session the whole week. The real problem is that of choice.  Which of the two or three in any time-slot that I’m really interested in (having whittled my selection down from as many as 30 altogether) do I go to?  This is where Limmud cleverly builds up the Jewish angst.  If I pick one and it’s no good, for how long will I blame myself for being stupid and not attending the other?

I mentioned that Limmud is driven by the young and it’s worth emphasising.  The average Limmud volunteer is in his or her early thirties and many are involved with Limmud pretty much full-on while managing to bring up young families and hold-down high powered jobs.  If these people are the future of our community then we have grounds for optimism.   This confidence is not simply based upon the cohort of bright and engaged people I see becoming senior community figures, it is also because what they will take with them into those positions is the Limmud ethos of tolerance and pluralism.  Something Anglo-Jewry is in desperate need of.  I can’t imagine the JFS debacle happening if the leaders of the United Synagogue were the same people who ran Limmud.

Which brings me to the closing gala.  Now I know the importance of these events, not least the appeal for desperately needed funds, but, well, how smaltzy does something need to be to get me to open my wallet?  I should pay them to stop it? The Israeli Scouts were terrifically accomplished, for sure, yet I thought I’d been transported back to a kibbutz in early 1960’s Israel.   The Instant Choir, which had learned its two songs in four sessions through the week, were a perfect example of what someone can achieve at Limmud, even if their pieces were slightly nauseating.  As for the jaunty piano pop song that seemed to be, at least in part, about the Holocaust, the less said the better.

Thankfully by that time I was so bunged up I was physically incapable of vomiting.

See you next year?

If you build it…

January 2, 2011

Kevin Costner has been coming to mind while reading the JC recently.  Rarely does a week go by without one synagogue or another revealing plans for a new building.

What has struck me most about these announcements is that many seem to follow an inordinately long period of gestation.  It’s not uncommon, for example, to read that a community has, after 36 years, finally found a course of action that satisfies the neighbours, the local planning department and the members (especially the members), such that ground will be broken for their magnificent new home in weeks.  And by weeks I suspect they mean “some unspecified time in the future when we have raised enough money for a builder to take us seriously”.

How can the Shard be piercing the sky within days of the unveiling of its plans, yet it takes years for any quick drying cement to make its acquaintance with the foundations of what is, let’s face it, the equivalent of a small warehouse space?

I’ll tell you how. Outside a synagogue everyone’s an anti-Semite, and inside a synagogue everyone’s an architect, a planning expert or an interior designer.  Especially an interior designer. Or more accurately, everyone is all three of them.  Everyone knows best and everyone else is a schmuck.  If one person says the walls should be green, everyone else says it should be another colour.  What colour should it be?  “I don’t know’, one will admit, “but definitely not green.  What about gold? Gold is nice.  Or Magenta?” Then another expert will cry out “Gold?  Magenta? Don’t be ridiculous!” And so it goes.

The simple truth is that no Jew should be allowed anywhere near shul design, especially not the internal bits. Not unless you want the inside of your prayer house to be in the style of Juif Quatorze.  You know what I mean: white marble floors, Ionic columns everywhere, plastic protectors covering burgundy velour upholstery.  Do you want the walls of your shul festooned with bronze and gold lamé drapes?  Do you want your ark to be in mahogany veneer with rolling doors like a 1970’s television cabinet? Do you want a four-ton crystal ner tamid with a thousand glistening lamps hanging off it?

As far as prayer venue design is concerned we’d do well to look to our Christian neighbours for inspiration. They have a penchant for images of nearly naked men being tortured, there’s neither leg-room nor sufficient comfort for a quick shluf, and they have clearly never heard of heating.

All this is deliberate.  Vicars realise that the last thing they want is for their places of worship to be welcoming.  This will only lead to people hanging around and arguing with each other about the curtains, the furniture and the minister.  Whereas we Jews lay on a small feast after the service, priests give their congregants one wafer, a sip of wine, then shoo them on their way, standing by the door to make sure they all disappear quickly.

That’s the attitude to adopt.   If you build it they won’t come.