A Feast for the Jewish Soul

Did Christmas come this year? Sorry, I seemed to have missed it while lighting the menorah and singing Maoz Tsur with 2,000 other Jews from around the world at the University of Nottingham during an extraordinary Shabbat and Chanukah in England.

Besides the Jewish holidays, what brought us all together to form our own community was the Limmud conference, an intense five-day immersion into Jewish culture, learning, camaraderie and fun. Celebrating its 25th anniversary, Limmud is a phenomenon that attracts Jews from around the world to spend their winter break listening to a galaxy of international speakers, well-known and unknown, discuss everything from Talmud to Disengagement to Klezmer to sexuality. Services for all denominations were available. You could study Torah and watch films. You could talk politics, jam with musicians, or dance. Politically, presenters represented views on the far right and the far left, but most fell in between. And everyone felt comfortable and safe. From morning till late at night participants could choose from a menu of sessions to make any Jew feel as though they had found the intellectual, spiritual, and cultural feast they've always craved.

I was one of something like 250 presenters, all of whom are treated as equals. Some may be more popular or better known, but there are no keynoters, which is just one element of the pluralistic and egalitarian spirit of Limmud. I presented four sessions related to the media and the prospects for peace; there were literally 1,000 other options. Just to give you an idea, here are a few session titles: “KabaLove – Jewish Mysticism and Relationship,” “Desperate Housewives: The Women in the David Story,” “The Influence of Islam on Judaism,” “Good Journalism in Bad Times,” “Mathematics and Mishnah,” “Continuing the Oral Tradition: The Prophets of HipHop,” and my favorite title that I was happy to see offered at a different time from my sessions, “Lies, Deception, Illicit Sex and Violence.”

At times the conference seems like Jewish summer camp and at others an academic conference. Some acts rocked the house with modern music, others brought music from our past back to life.

The participants ranged in age from infants to people in their nineties. Many Brits bring the family and make it a vacation. The overwhelming majority of participants are English, but there's enough of a presence from Israel, the Continent and other nations to give Limmud a cosmopolitan flair.

One of the other unique elements of Limmud is that it is almost entirely run by volunteers who start planning for the next conference almost from the day the current one ends. The logistics of bringing speakers in from around the world, organizing rooms at the university, ordering food, making sure audio-visual equipment works and the rest of minutiae that goes into planning a conference is overwhelming, and yet the event went off from my perspective without a hitch.

This doesn't mean the experience did not have at least one negative aspect, and that is the food. For a carnivore like me, the vegetarian and fish meals, which were all included, were a nightmare, and I may never eat another cucumber. Of course I could stand to use a few pounds; unfortunately I made up for not eating the meals by filling up on the cookies they strategically placed in the halls between meals.

People from outside the UK have been so turned on by the Limmud experience, they've started to create their own versions in France, Switzerland, Turkey, Canada, Australia, and the Galil. I immediately thought it would be great to have a Limmud in the United states, since I know of no conference that can match the diversity of subjects or, more important, the ethos of Limmud, As it turns out, a group has created a Limmud in the Catskills that takes place this year during Martin Luther King Weekend, I’m not sure you can achieve the same spirit with Americans, let alone New Yorkers, but it's certainly worth the effort. For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of Limmud was the opportunity to interact with and learn from Europeans.

Next year, if you want to escape Christmas, and can't make it to Israel, spend a week with your cousins in England at Limmud. It will do your soul good.