U.K. Conference Discusses Sex Ed, Israeli Rock

Orna Coussin
Haaretz Correspondent
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Orna Coussin
Haaretz Correspondent

"Anal sex is Jewish sex," Nathan Abrams, a young and energetic history lecturer told his audience in a talk he delivered at the University of Nottingham in England on Monday. Dozens of Jewish men and women attended the lecture, but no one got upset. No one was enraged. One of those present even asked with bemused curiosity: "Do you mean that heterosexual anal sex is more popular among Jews than in other religions?" Abrams admitted that he had no evidence. He based his argument on pornography produced by Jews and books written by Jews, mentioning names like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth. The audience listened politely.

How can one explain this show of liberal tolerance? Perhaps it was the late hour of the day. While Abrams' lecture, "Porn Again Jews: Jewish Involvement in the Adult Film Industry," drew a fairly large crowd, it began only at 11 P.M. The audience had already endured two full days of nonstop lectures, from 8:00 A.M. until after midnight, on a wide range of subjects, including kabbala, ecology, demography, politics, Torah, sex education, Israeli rock, the occupation, media, medicine, and it was simply exhausting. How much knowledge can you absorb in a single day? How much skepticism can you generate? By night, anything funny or weird or irritating may be readily accepted, without being checked too carefully.

Yet there may be a more substantive reason for the audience's response. Abrams' statements were accepted with such equanimity perhaps owing to the character of the event at which the lecture was given. This is Limmud, the massive annual gathering of British Jewry held during the week between Christmas and New Years Day - a season in which Britain's public arena is entirely consumed by Christian merrymaking. By any yardstick, it is an impressive event: Supremely organized by volunteers, offering a sumptuous menu of lectures (750 over five days) and a cornucopia of food, drink, music, fun and friendship.

The large University of Nottingham college campus, located in a city that does not have a large Jewish community (the venue was chosen by Limmud organizers for prosaic reasons) was empty of students, who were on vacation. The hundreds of Jewish participants - adults and youngsters, men and women, Orthodox, Reform and secular, emphatically modest and astoundingly sexy, most from London and the rest from other British cities - braved the late December cold to attend lectures, meet others, eat, and just be together. Around the coffee bars by day, and near the pub by night, there was a tangible feeling - the intense glow of a successful party. The pure enjoyment was evident in the invigorating conversations, the smiles, the laughter. Limmud alumni invariably say "you come back on such a high," and can't wait for next year.

Not to mention the matchmaking. Mia a 24-year-old from Liverpool, said she did not come to meet any guys, but that "for sure, you read in the Jewish Chronicle, for instance, about this boy or that girl that met the year before at Limmud," so maybe it really does happen. Richard, a 23-year-old from London, said that this was his third Limmud (the event has been held in cities throughout England for 24 years), that he was enjoying it tremendously, his parents were here, too, and that he was here with his girlfriend, Charlotte.

To put it another way, Limmud is the annual test of physical and mental strength of British Jewry - an event that fleetingly transforms the community from a simulated entity (just as any other community, no matter where it is located) to a group with actual texture and contour. To be sure, the event succeeds in bringing together more than 2,000 Jews from all streams, since it has only one declared agenda: limmud, or learning. Jews converge to learn. Knowledge is acquired for its own sake. Sex is also an area of knowledge, providing there is someone who wants to talk about it, and someone who wants to hear.

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Seated in one lecture hall were Halima Krausen - a large, ebullient female Muslim theologian, whose head is swathed in a white scarf - and Mark Solomon, liberal rabbi with a carefully trimmed beard and a skullcap. They spoke about prophets in the Koran and in rabbinic literature. Krausen offered quotes from the Koran that demonstrated respect for figures from the Bible. Solomon cited passages from the Talmud that presented a liberal Jewish approach similar to the Muslim view on prophecy: Although there are no longer any prophets, everyone has the potential to bear prophecy. Each of us can create a direct connection with divine wisdom.

Sitting in another hall was Gail Washkansky, a thirtysomething South African from Cape Town who is spending the year in London and is active with The Jewish AIDS Trust, an organization that is fighting AIDS. About 20 parents of teenagers came to the session to speak, with impressive candor, about their difficulties in speaking with their children about sex. One father related that his son, who is only 10, is already talking about his "thingie." The father was uncertain about how much he should explain to the child. "I found out everything - about masturbation, about pleasure, about contraception - alone, by accident, from magazines and films, and never from my parents." Therefore, he felt that maybe his son should go through the same self-learning process of discovering sexuality. Tradition is tradition.

Other lectures dealt with the Jewish organization for environmental quality, general charity, and communal charity of Jews. There was even a basic lesson in stand-up comedy. How to tell a joke, how to respond to the audience.

Just good kids

Sociologist Barry Kosmin and his colleague, Bible and Middle East scholar Winston Pickett - both prominent figures in the local Jewish community - also delivered talks. The two followed up on a lecture on Jewish demographics in Britain that was delivered by David Graham. According to the 2001 census, there are 267,000 Jews in Britain, with over 180,000 in London, and the rest scattered throughout Britain, including 26,000 in the Manchester area, 7,000 in Glasgow, and under 1,000 in Nottingham. In one lecture, Kosmin and Pickett addressed whether there is a new anti-Semitism against Jews, and in another they looked at how to brand the Jewish community.

Kosmin and Pickett head the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), a Jewish think-tank that conducts polls and studies in the community, and is frequently asked by the British media to represent the community. Kosmin wanted to know what he should say on the BBC about British Jewry that would cause non-Jews to like him. The ideas raised included: We place the utmost importance on education; we are a well-organized and successful community; our roots run deep; we did not grow extinct; we go all the way to Cromwell; we have Benjamin Disraeli; and the value placed on family in our community is very strong.

The results of a survey recently conducted among London Jews that was released at Limmud found that the community is, on the whole, pretty decent. If the survey is to be believed (it is not recommended to believe such surveys), most Jews do not smoke, do not drink (only 15 percent of Jews in Britain drink a pint of beer daily, like the average Briton), do well in their studies, and tend not to move their residence. The impression one received at Limmud is that most Jews are polite, arrive for lectures on time, sit quietly, occasionally raise their hands and offer erudite comments, and enjoy being among other Jews. The speakers noted that it was no easy feat to sell a product like this to the British. All of this self-adulation is liable to generate jealousy and aversion.

Paragon of pragmatism

Of course, there was also one celebrity at Limmud, the type who filled the main building's large auditorium, with a television camera recording the talk and a genuine feeling of excitement pervading the crowd. The guest was Lord Robert Winston, one of Britain's most prominent and admired Jews, who is an expert on genetics and fertility, the host of BBC Science programs, and an individual who wears a skullcap and often speaks and writes in the name of the community.

Winston began with a painting by Peter Bruegel that illustrated the collapsing Tower of Babel. He spoke about ancient points of view on the soul, which, according to one ancient study conducted on dying patients, weighs 21 grams. From there he segued to an American study of identical twins raised separately, found that the tendency toward spirituality is genetic, quoted from Maimonides, discussed the issue of the soul of the fetus in the womb, talked about the new book "The Probability of God," which calculates that there is a 67 percent probability that God exists, came out against the late Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who dismissed the theory of evolution, and dismissed the position of his "dear friend," scientist Richard Dawkins, who claimed that the September 11 events were the product of religion, regardless of what sort.

There was even time for a humorous interlude: A fellow goes to his rabbi and asks if they play cricket in the world to come. The rabbi consults with a religious court judge and asks a mystic, and comes back with the answer: The good news, yes, they play cricket in the world to come. The bad news: You are the batsman opening tomorrow's game.

When the lecture was over, one could understand Winston's views in the following way: It is a good thing to make advances in genetic engineering and fertility treatments, but we must not forget that the soul is not a measuring stick, and that it has an element of holiness. A paragon of pragmatism, which perhaps characterizes the entire British community.