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?

Schochet Horror! Yitzchak to attend Limmud?

November 29, 2010

Dear old Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet.  He’s so obsessed with his own importance that he can no longer stand the thought of thousands of Jews all being together just up the motorway from Mill Hill without him.  His latest shul blog entry is entitled “The End of the Limmud Controversy” and it reminds us of how he thinks he was at the centre of a storm about Orthodox Rabbis attending Limmud some years ago, but that he’s willing to forgive Limmud now that it has returned to its original values of orthodox teaching. I can assure readers that this was a storm in a kiddush cup.  A very small kiddush cup.

In his piece we learn that Rabbi Schochet has, for all these years, towed the party line by not attending Limmud, although many US Rabbis have done so, and Lord Sacks himself is on the record as a great supporter of what he sees as one of Anglo-Jewry’s major success stories.

He  tells us that Limmud had, over the years, been hijacked by the reform and pro-pluralist orthodox with “ulterior motives”, and this is why he supported the Bet Din position, but that’s OK now because for the past few years young Elliott Goldstein has saved Limmud from the terror of pluralism making it safe for him to teach there. So there you have it, Elliott Goldstein is not pro-pluralist.  In fact for the years he was at the helm of Limmud he was carefully steering it away from Port Pluralism.

Well Rabbi Schochet, if it has been your concern that Limmud was controlled by the left but that it’s getting back on the right track now I’d advise you to stay away because you’re not going to like it.  Your suggestion that  80% of attendees are from the United Synagogue sounds very high to me, and I’d love to know your source for this statistic, but that’s irrelevant because Limmudniks just don’t care.  We don’t go round worrying about what flavour of Jew everyone else is.  We go to learn, meet friends and have fun.  There’s no space at Limmud for the intolerance that you would bring because it’s packed to the rafters with thousands of Jews who are willing to listen to perspectives and voices other than their own (although it’s true that there always seems to be one person per session who can’t shut up).

Perhaps what I find most laughable about Rabbi S’s post is the suggestion that with his presence, and perhaps that of one or two others who share his midset, Limmud could be brought back to what it was always intended to be.

Funny.  I didn’t know it was intended to be a place for teaching strict orthodox doctrine.  I thought that’s what Project Seed was for.  Rabbi Schochet, I think you’d better take a look at the Limmud Core Values before deciding to join us, especially those values about learning and diversity.

He leaves us with a teaser:  “Will I be going?  Watch this space.”


Limmud is sooooo nice

December 28, 2008

And so we come once again to the highlight of the Jewish year; Limmud, or as I call it, camp for grown-ups.  Well why not?  Every summer the children go off at great expense to be with hundreds of other Jews, so why shouldn’t the adults do the same?

I’ve decided to stay away this year.

There are two reasons for this.  The first is to take advantage of the traffic free streets in north-west London.  You guys stuck up at Warwick University have no idea what it’s like here at the moment. Tumbleweed is drifting across the North Circular Road at Henley’s Corner.  I can pick up a takeaway schwarma from Solly’s without queuing for an hour and a half and I even got called up on Shabbat, although this was partly because there was a spectacularly large number of aliyot this week.  By the time we reached the third sefer Torah we were dragging people in off the street.

The second reason is that I’m just a bit fed up with having to be so nice to people the whole time.  I don’t know why I should feel this way.  If Limmud is a family, as the organisers keep insisting, why the hell aren’t there any arguments?  Everyone’s determinedly friendly, tolerant and considerate.  It drives me up the wall.

What’s even more difficult to cope with is that I have to keep smiling at everyone when Limmud is, let’s face it, about as non-Jewish an experience as any Jew could possibly contemplate.  All that queuing and shlepping around the campus, the low-grade student accommodation, the necessity to be here, then here, then there, then back here again, not to mention the stopping to ask people where they’re going, and “Oh, I really wanted to go to that but I have to go to this because I know the person who’s presenting the session” (even though their subject is about as exciting as smallprint).

And then there’s the constant din.  There isn’t a minute of peace from the moment you drag yourself, bleary eyed, into the Rootes Building in the morning until the time you crawl back to your digs after the evening’s entertainment.  By the end of the week last year my ears were ringing so hard that I felt like Quasimodo with tinnitus.

Limmudfest is slightly more relaxed, but only slightly, and at least it offers something priceless for those who like a giggle.  Have you ever seen 500 Jews all trying to put up tents at the same time?  It really is a camp-site for sore eyes.  Let’s put this into context.  Jews haven’t owned tents since we completed our forty-year meander through the wilderness (Norwood missed a sponsorship opportunity there, didn’t they?) and can anyone blame us?  We are, after all, neither practical with our hands not stupid enough to want to go on holiday and live in worse conditions than our own homes offer.  It’s a luxury hotel or nothing for most Jews.  My understanding is that the Jewish Caravan Club appear in the 2009 edition of the Guinness Book of Records under the category entitled Daftest Concept Ever Devised.

But I digress.

Most Limmudfestniks have borrowed their tent from a gentile neighbour and have no idea what to do with it.  While the recommendation is that one practice by setting up a tent at home before using it for the first time, no Jew does.  Peh!  Who needs to practice putting up a tent?  We’ll work it out.  There’ll be someone there who can help.  Oh yeah?  Didn’t it cross your mind that the other 499 people had exactly the same thought?

After about six hours most of the tents are sufficiently well erected to allow one or two people to crawl in, but that’s only because they were designed to sleep twelve.  It’s pot-luck whether your door is facing the way you want it to face or is situated so that you crawl in and out via the brambles and undergrowth.  Nobody really knows how their tent will look by the time they throw in the towel (and seventeen suitcases) and trudge to the mud carpeted, luke warm shower to get ready for Shabbat.

And another thing.  ’Fest is even ‘nicer’ than Conference.  It’s more happy clappy than an evangelical Christian’s sixth birthday party.  It’s all alternative therapy and yoga, which I have no real problem with, as long as they provide drugs to ease the pain, which they don’t.  You’re even obliged to go into the next field if you want to drink anything stronger than camomile tea.

I’m probably sounding like a killjoy and I don’t mean to.  I really am a big fan of Limmud.  It’s just that after a week of it I need a good rest, and it so happens that I’m still resting after last year.