All Jewish, All the Time

An intrepid correspondent for Haaretz schleps to Warwick, England, to figure out why some 2,500 Jews spent the week between Christmas and the New Year sitting in classes at a chilly Limmud rather than on a golden Caribbean beach

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Danna Harman
Danna Harman

COVENTRY, England - It's the day after Christmas and all of England is snug at home, admiring their holiday presents and eating leftover turkey. Except, of course, for the Jews. They are in Golders Green schlepping suitcases through the foot-high snow to buses that will take them north, to this year's Limmud conference - a creative, collective learning experience that falls somewhere between the countercultural Burning Man event and a yeshiva. The five-day conference-cum-retreat, whose mission is to give Jews the opportunity to "take one step further on their Jewish journey," will feature over 1,000 sessions and a total of 2,500 participants. These range from elderly gents arguing about Israel, to teenage girls playing tambourines and drinking the event's signature cocktail, a "Simcha on the Beach" . It's not particularly cheap (costing up to $1,070 for the week, per person ), nor particularly comfortable (Limmud takes over the campus of the University of Warwick, lodging participants in the empty dorm rooms of students who are on vacation ) - and the food is, how shall I put it gently? Terrible. But, for many in the British Jewish community, Limmud has become an unmissable yearly ritual.

"Think of it as a seder experience," says Alastair Falk, who, together with three friends, started Limmud 30 years ago. "You meet up once a year, with people you don't always agree with or even necessarily like, but whom you consider family, and you share an experience - complete with all its own traditions and significance."

A session at Limmud. Courses range from "Stress Management for the Modern Jew" to "How Matza Became Square."Credit: Mitchell Griver

My personal Limmud experience starts on the bus, where I sit myself down near two Israeli women living in London, both ulpan teachers employed by the Jewish Agency, it turns out, who will be giving Hebrew lessons at the conference. Immediately, one of them wants to introduce me to her son, the banker. A man in thick glasses and a black skullcap offers me some Bamba. Where does one even get this Israeli children's snack food in London? The thought that I could have spent my week-long holiday somewhere cooler than this crosses my mind, and not for the last time.

In the beginning, three decades ago, Limmud was intended as a conference for Jewish educators. The founders invited anyone who had anything to say about Judaism to teach a session, charged 15 pounds sterling, and bought some videos to stick into the VCR for the kids of participants who tagged along. "We figured people would like to get away for a few days and spend some time being Jewish," says Falk.

Turns out they were right. Some 80 people showed up that cold winter of 1980, when 40 sessions took place. The next year, they moved to a bigger venue and brought in kosher catering - and there has been no turning back since. To date, some 22,000 Brits have attended Limmud, which is equivalent to about 10 percent of all British Jewry, says Carolyn Bogush, Limmud's 39-year-old volunteer chair, a business psychologist and mother of three. And, while the Christmas conference remains the flagship, today there are mini Limmud conferences, festivals and study events across Britain throughout the year - as well as in 50 communities around the world, from Moscow to Sydney to Rio and the Galilee. In 2010 alone, Bogush estimates, 35,000 people took part in a Limmud event somewhere in the world. Simply put, Limmud has become, she says, "British Jewry's greatest export."

"Limmud was born out of a frustration," explains Keith Kahn-Harris, a sociologist. "The idea of bypassing the ossified, traditional Jewish establishment and getting people from across communities together was radical. People who had no remote connection to organized Jewish life found themselves studying hevruta [that is, yeshiva-style, in pairs]. Limmud provided a safe, non-alienating space ... and it caught on."

Upon arrival, I get my dorm room key, and a 370-page catalog filled with descriptions of the various sessions along with short bios of the lecturers; I am also directed to the cafeteria in the main building, which is called Rootes. I sit down for my lunch of potatoes with dry tuna fish - blissfully still unaware that this is pretty much all I will be eating every day - and try to decide what to do next.

"Choice is a fundamental principle here," explains Clive Lawton, another of the original founders. "Jews should learn here. That is our philosophy. But what, how and when to do it - we leave up to you. We always believed the market would rule.

"Even if God himself offered to show up and teach a session at 2 P.M.," he jokes, "we would want to put on someone else at the same time, just in case someone was not interested."

The number of sessions, together with the variety of offerings and what Lawton calls a "glorious lack of quality control," make the whole experience slightly overwhelming: Am I interested in learning something about the Book of Isaiah, or going to a session on the big broigesses (disputes ) that shook and shaped Anglo-Jewry? I wonder. I am curious about what Judaism has to say about the death penalty, but "Eggplants: The Jewish Culinary Influence on Mediterranean Preparations" also looks tempting.

Should I attend a session on Crusades and medieval persecution, or one on what to do when halakha (Jewish law ) and ethics collide? Would it be valuable to go to a session on modern Orthodoxy with American-born Rabbi Shlomo Riskin from the settlement of Efrat, or join the Limmud Choir, which will be performing at the gala on the last night. Thinking about all this is so exhausting I sort of feel like taking a nap. Instead I set out to decipher the cryptic names of classrooms where sessions are taking place.

The first class I choose - on Abraham Isaac Kook, the late rabbinical leader and thinker - is in a classroom called RAM 5. Where is that, I wonder, and is it anywhere near HUM 4, where another class I want to pop in on - "Stress Management for the Modern Jew" - is taking place? En route to SOC 7, where I was going to do some study on "The Kabbala of Bob Dylan," I bump into Judith Ish-Horowitz, 57, a teacher from South London, who is on her way to SCI 6 for a session on prayer in sign language. Ish-Horowitz brought her husband, three children and parents to Limmud 20 years ago - and the whole clan has been coming together every winter since. "Nothing competes with Limmud. This is our big vacation of the year," she tells me. It's also, she says, "our best family time. We [and our children] are always bumping into each other, and their friends have become our friends, and ours theirs."

I stop by a class on Isaiah, and sit down in another one on whether Judaism can be a route to spirituality. The presenter talks about the Jewish calendar and how it frames our lives and sets our pace. I feel myself slowing down and listening carefully instead of constantly checking the catalog to see which sessions I am missing. It is not bad at all, this Limmud, I think.

I start Day Two with a circuit-training class on the second floor of Rootes, run by a personal trainer from London. It is comprised of seven other people, five of them wearing jeans and all huffing and puffing to our trainer's Gidi Gov music. This is not, I note, a very sporty crowd. The morning prayers going on (Orthodox, Masorti, and egalitarian services, taking place in adjacent rooms ), and the hevruta project down the hall - where hundreds of participants have gathered to go over texts - are clearly where the action is.

I cram in a lot on this day. For example, I learn that in medieval times the Jewish matchmaking system suffered a crisis, as kids stopped obeying their parents' dictums. I learn that you can interpret the Torah as advocating for vegetarianism. And that, others argue, it also allows for white lies. I discover how difficult it is to understand Pope Pius XII's attitude toward the Jews, and I am told, manna was a psychedelic drug. Is that true? Who knew? I walk into that session (called "The Forbidden Tree of Knowledge: Psychedelics and the Bible") by mistake really, as it's right next to a class on the "Mishna Berura."

"And what happened when the Israelites ate too much manna?" asks the presenter, a bald New Yorker in thick glasses. "They lost their way and started worshiping a golden calf! Why a calf? Because mushrooms grow in cow shit! They were addicted!" How did I miss all this at my Masorti grade school on French Hill in Jerusalem? I wonder.

A young student puts his hand up: "Wasn't it too dry in the desert for mushrooms to keep?" So informed these Limmud folks, they don't miss anything.

I am so busy flitting from place to place that I almost forget I am here to write an article. I pull myself away from a session on "The Workings of Chevra Kadishas" (burial societies ), tiptoe out of an interesting discussion about Gaza with John Ging, the UNRWA director, altogether skip the class on "How Matza became Square," and head out to do some interviews.

I start with some Limmud volunteers, which is not difficult, as they are everywhere. There are only four paid professionals in the whole organization. Practically everyone else, from the presenters to the technicians to the teen Limmud counselors, are doing this for free. In fact, most are paying for the privilege. Eighty percent of the Limmud budget comes from participant fees, and while some 150 (out of 400 ) presenters get their expenses paid, all the rest, as well as all the organizers - most of whom are so busy working at the conference they barely have time to attend sessions - pay to attend.

"It is about valuing what you are getting," says 37-year-old Danielle Nagler, a senior executive at the BBC, a member of an Orthodox synagogue in London and a mother of three, as well as being the co-chair of the conference, who estimates she put in about 15 Limmud hours a week over the past year. "Volunteering gives it a passion," she continues. "It sucks you in ... And, it's an amazing feeling watching this pop-up community, which starts in the abstract every year anew, be created."

Meir Adler, a 24-year-old consultant for an IT company, is volunteering at the information desk. The son of a Holocaust survivor and a Muslim convert to Judaism - both of who later became Bobover Hasidim - Adler attends an ultra-Orthodox shtiebel in London where Yiddish is spoken. He also has a degree in philosophy and an increasingly secular outlook on life.

"I have moved away from my background, but remember what's important. At Limmud, I feel part of something I am comfortable with," he says. "It's a buffet. There is every type of Judaism here. You can stay in your comfort zone or step out slightly, and engage in dialogue. If you are very Orthodox it's unlikely you will come to a gay and lesbian event and decide it's the best thing on earth, but you might realize that it's right for others."

Are there also atheists who come to Limmud? I ask Adler and the others at the info desk. Sure, they respond and turn to the people standing in line. "Who is an atheist?" someone cheerfully call out.

"I'm a borderline atheist," offers Deborah Freeman, a 65-year-old playwright from Manchester. She usually comes to Limmud for a day or two, gives a session on her plays and attends a few classes on the arts, or on Israel. "I find the Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible] to be an inspiration, but I don't see God in it, rather stories about God," she explains. "Here, I can delve and learn, but remain the me I want to be."

Back at Rootes for some tuna and potatoes, the only thing more astonishing than the (atrocious ) quality of the lunch is the incredible number of people standing in line for it. And why is everyone waiting in one line when there are actually three stations operating? I cut around to the second one, smug in my knowledge that I am so much more enterprising than these Brits, and ask if there is anything besides the little packets of kosher Thousand Island dressing to go with the gourmet meal.

"She must be Israeli," a handsome young father points out to his son. "She is doing the line back to front." Oh, the shame. The shame. I am a rude Israeli. What would my British grandparents say? Another guy who is cutting the line beside me - a fellow Israeli, what a surprise - gives me a sheepish look.

I slink away to SOC 4 and a class about how the Jewish prayer book came into being, after which I head over to get some tea in the arts center, where I bump into Silvia Nacamulli, a 39-year-old Italian chef. She is here with her husband, Marc Iarchy, a Belgian banker, whom she met three years ago at Limmud when he walked into her class on making pumpkin risotto.

"I was standing in the hall, and had 20 minutes to kill," recalls 41-year-old Iarchy, "and a friend grabbed me, and said 'Hey, you like cooking ... come check this out.'" Iarchy spent the whole session, he admits, Googling the pretty presenter on his Blackberry - and the rest, as they say, is history.

Limmud is, as one might imagine, the biggest Jewish pick-up event this side of the Birthright program. Two of Ish-Horowitz's kids met their partners here, as did Bogush, Kahn-Harris and countless of others. "Who is going to be your girlfriend?" I ask Isaac Tendler, a 14-year-old Orthodox boy from Nottingham, who is the only Jew in his school of 1,500 pupils. He giggles, slumps into a beanbag chair, and kicks off a sneaker. "Let's just say I would not marry someone not Jewish," he responds, gravely. "I guess you could say that is a good reason to be here ... even if some of the Torah stuff is boring."

"There are a lot of singles here, and you meet like-minded people, who are interested in Jewish learning and open. It's a good start," says Robert Owen, 57, an Orthodox actuary from London, who met his American wife, a Conservative rabbi from Baltimore, when they sat next to each other at a Limmud session about the Book of Job a few years back. "We started talking then," he says. "And we have not stopped talking since."

It's the last morning of the conference and I wake up early to go for a jog in the snow. Careful not to wipe out on the ice, and pulling my wool hat firmly down to protect me from the drizzle, I run past a long line of ugly concrete university buildings and daydream about the bikini I could have been wearing if I had taken these days and flown off for a vacation during the Christmas break. I slow down to read some yellow signs pinned to the makeshift eruv surrounding the area of the campus: They say something about a contagious virus and advise Limmudniks who find themselves throwing up on what to do. I definitely could have been in more cool places this week.

I do a loop around RAM in the fog, and find myself near SOC, thinking back to the "Nazis in Oxford" class I sat in on yesterday. I dash past HUM, take a short cut around SCI - fondly reflecting on the Tuesday session there on Breslov and Chabad messianism. I slow down near the arts center, and stop in front of Rootes, where, humming a Hasidic nigun as I stretch my calves, I realize I am a little sad about leaving. A little nostalgic. A little bereft, even. I think of the bikini holiday. And wonder where I sign up for Limmud next year.