Once upon a time, simply plunking any Israeli singer in front of a Diaspora audience was enough to get them dancing the hora and wiping away a tear. Not at Limmud UK: This conference has a discerning palate. This week-long gathering of Jewish learning and culture, which each year between Christmas and New Year's draws more than 2,000 people to the campus of the University of Warwick, has already enjoyed performances by the top names in Jewish and Israeli music. Ehud Banai, Hadag Nachash, Etti Ankri, Coolooloosh and Sfatayim have shared space in the famous fat Limmud program book with such varied American Jewish performers as Debbie Friedman, Craig Taubman and Sway Machinery.
At Makom, which develops and organizes educational and cultural materials and events intended to deepen the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, we had a feeling that Kobi Oz's new band, playing the songs he had written while "soaking in the warm marinade of Judaism," might strike a chord with Limmud's connoisseur audiences. Limmud was welcoming, the Jewish Agency in the U.K. was up for it, we at Makom translated the songs so they could be projected during the performance, and Oz and his band traveled to the cold of Warwick to perform "Mizmorei Nevukhim" (Psalms for the Perplexed) twice for the Limmud UK Conference.
Responses were not just good. The entire conference was ecstatic. Long-term Limmud junkies emerged from the show in raptures. "I heard the lost voice of Am Yisrael rising," a respected lecturer wrote me by e-mail later. "Transcends categorization, speaks with the heart and soul of a Jew," enthused an artist. "Nuance, depth and emotion, all tempered with a sense of humor that was simultaneously cutting, loving and surreal. It was a gift to hear him perform," gushed another respected researcher and educator in the Jewish world. Clearly "Mizmorei Nevukhim" struck gold. Why did this meeting between the music of Kobi Oz and the audience at Limmud UK end up being so much more than just another concert?
It may well have been due to the way the show flowed so easily and generously between Sephardi and Ashkenazi styles. Limmud has already danced to the Moroccan wedding romps of Sfatayim, but it has rarely heard a Tunisian guy lead audience and band in a rousing version of a niggun by the ultimate Ashkenazi songster, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. With a surprising disco-like a capella burst in the middle of that song, Oz's band was able to swim so charmingly between the oceans of Sepharad and Ashkenaz, reminding us they were really only a single sea.
Or perhaps "Mizmorei Nevukhim" was so appreciated because it offered Limmud some hope regarding the developing Jewish nature of Israel. Limmudniks - that strange new denomination of Jews who pay more than $800 to spend their Christmas break surrounded by Jewish pluralism and tolerance - have been following our religious problems in Israel with a concern verging on heartbreak. Reform Jews (a significant population at Limmud) read of the arrest of a tallit-wearing woman at the Kotel, and note sadly that Israel may be the only democracy in the world where they are not free to practice their Judaism; the politically liberal (also well-represented at Limmud) cringe when they hear settlers presenting "Jewish values" in opposite ways from how they understand them; and most at Limmud have simply taken for granted that Israel is mainly full of "Hebrew-speaking goyim."
Into this chasm of disappointment stepped Kobi Oz. Former longtime leader of the Teapacks band and successful novelist, his pate free of religious covering, he sang honestly and wittily of his mixed feelings about religious ritual (recounting his first venture into a mikveh, he wonders fearfully "Will I emerge a king, or a mule?" and comes out relieved: "Still feel like myself, thank God ..."), and of his love and respect for the faith of his grandfather. He conducted a dialogue with rabbis of the Talmud, on the one hand, and with eccentrics holding "Messiah" signs, on the other. The Israeli Judaism of Kobi Oz seemed to be a cultural resource, a smiling companion, a call to social action: much like the kind of Judaism that comes to life during the week of Limmud.
And as a result the largest emotional and sociological chasm of all - that which lies between Israel and the Diaspora - seemed to disappear in the harmonies. Though he continued to pronounce the "P" in the translation of the show's title "Psalms for the Perplexed," and though he bravely battled through a joke whose punch line, "amba," was never going to be met with the guffaws it sparks in Israel, Oz proved himself bilingual in more ways than one. When he casually threw off an observation that "mitzvot are Pilates for the personality," he was sharing a witty and wise insight with a large global community - and in more catchy, alliterative English than Limmud's best teachers could ever conjure.
As Oz and his incredibly talented band, like musical pixies, led Limmud skipping through moral minefields of rich and poor, right and left, religious and secular, it became clear that "Mizmorei Nevukhim" was more than just a great musical celebration. It was an expression of the very generosity, diversity, plurality and sense of fun that Limmud prides itself on. Though they had never met before, Kobi Oz had written for Limmudniks the theme songs they hadn't even known they might dream of.
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