Confessions of a Limmud Virgin: Seven Takeaways

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Barely a week back from my first ever Limmud event (still wondering what took me so long), it’s time to sum up.

First, a shout-out to all my friends and colleagues who’d already been: Everything you told me about this annual British-Jewish mega-event – not quite a conference, not quite a festival, a bit of Jewish summer camp with a sprinkling of college campus life thrown in for good measure – was right on the mark. The weather was awful, and the food not much better. But who cares? The sessions were fascinating, the conversations inspiring, and the people just plain fabulous.

So what did I take away from this first experience? Here are seven things this Limmud virgin learned, in no particular order:

1. Contrary to some of the stereotypes those of us born and raised in America have heard, the British are not necessarily formal, reserved and stuffy. In fact, quite the opposite. During my five-day stay, it was not uncommon to find myself, both at meals and in-between sessions, sitting across from total strangers who would proceed to divulge within the first five minutes of our conversation rather intimate details of their lives. They let me know, for example, about their sexual preferences and battles with life-threatening diseases – even before I learned their names. And then there were all the sessions I attended (this might have more to do with my particular choice of topics) where participants would suddenly break into tears as they revealed their family secrets. Was it just because we were all at this retreat in the middle of nowhere, I wondered, or was this the British-Jewish way of doing things?

2. Not all British Jews come from London, Manchester and Leeds, as many of us who did not grow up among them are inclined to believe. Fact is I even met an enchanting fellow from a small town called Margate. Who knew there was a Margate outside of New Jersey? Better yet, who knew there were Jews there?

3. The key to making the most of the Limmud experience is learning to flow – that is, freeing yourself of the need to attend every session you’ve underlined in your schedule. Case in point: There I was about to make my way from the session on Kabbalistic meditation to one on Jewish peoplehood (yawn) when I approached two young men who seemed to be in the know and asked them where they were heading. “It’s a session with Danny Shine,” they told me. “About what?” I asked. “Not sure,” they responded. “But he’s great.” So I followed them. It turned out to be a session on death and one of the best I attended (not to mention life-affirming). Particularly illuminating were some of the personal insights shared at this quasi-group-therapy session by a bunch of nice Jewish doctors (one of whom turned out to be the young man I had followed). Quite a contrast to the previous meditation session where despite all my efforts to flow and feel otherwise, I couldn’t help but think of that great song “I Feel Nothing” from “A Chorus Line.”

4. The most Jewish film ever made was “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” That’s the Woody Allen film about two non-Jewish American women (played by Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) who spend a summer in Barcelona where they both get romantically involved with the gorgeous Javier Bardem. The person who made this rather unusual claim was David Evans, a director of the hit TV series “Downton Abbey” (and a Jew by choice, as I learned), who was a contributor at a special discussion on great Jewish films. So what’s so Jewish about “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”? If I understood Evans correctly, it embodies the great Jewish virtues of living life to the fullest (no need to go beyond the scene where Bardem walks across the restaurant, introduces himself and invites both women to fly away with him for the weekend), while at the same time, being fully aware of the consequences of such risky behavior.

5. Women who carry the so-called Ashkenazi gene, made famous by celebrity superstar Angelina Jolie, have many other options besides a prophylactic double mastectomy, as she chose. I won’t go into all of them here, but an oophorectomy is one, since taking the ovaries out reduces the risk of breast cancer. This I learned from a specialist who delivered a session on breast cancer screening in Israel. The fact that it wasn’t more heavily attended made me wonder about attitudes in Britain to the “Jewish disease.”

6. When your teenagers tell you they hate you, that’s a good thing. This was just one of the important, and obviously reassuring, lessons I took from the presentation delivered by Limmud star Scott Fried on “How to talk to the creature in your car: a survival guide for parents of teens.” Other words of wisdom from Scott: Never criticize your teen’s taste in music – music fills a deep void for them at this critical juncture in their lives. I’d be hard pressed to answer what the Jewish angle is here except that we Jews tend to feel a strong urge to reproduce ourselves and to fret a lot about how we’re doing as parents.

7. To those who take pride in what’s also known as “British Jewry’s greatest export,” I have news: The idea for Limmud was conceived decades ago and on the other side of the ocean. Yes, indeed. This I heard at a presentation delivered by the UK’s only Misogynist Film Club – a group of feminists who celebrate, according to their mission statement, the terrible portrayal of women in cinema. The connection was made as we watched a clip from the box office hit “Dirty Dancing” that takes place at a Jewish resort in the Catskills, otherwise known as the “Borscht Belt” in the summer of ’63. In the clip, a voice announces over the loudspeaker: “Then on the west porch, we have a symposium by Rabbi Maurice Sherman.”

“You hear that,” said one of the presenters. “That’s where Limmud started.”

British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis addresses the Limmud Conference, U.K., Dec. 23, 2013.Credit: Flix'n'Pix

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