I've been invited to Limmud conferences in different countries on three different continents. While all of them have something of the Limmud ethos – i.e. a space for learning, meeting and exchanging ideas where all Jews (and non-Jews) are equals, and a wide range of quality in the food, sleeping quarters and navigability of the lecture venues - the original British Limmud Conference (now in its 33rd year) is like no other.
The atrocious food, icy rooms, windy pathways and far-flung classrooms make it an endurance test like no other Jewish gathering you will have been to. But the breadth and range of its hundreds upon hundreds of sessions, the near-anarchic informal atmosphere and the sense that just about anything, no matter how scandalous or heretical, can be said, makes the hardships all worthwhile.
Making it to Limmud Conference, spending five days of your hard-earned Christmas holiday there, is in itself an achievement but as you receive the bulky program book, or even if you download the new app, your heart sinks as you realize that with often as many as a dozen events taking place at one time, there is no way you are ever going to get to even a quarter of the lectures and shows you would like to attend.
You circle out a few of the bigger names and celebrities on offer and vow not to miss those, at least. That's when you discover a packed hall and are forced to sit on the stairs, or right at the back where you can hear every third word, and the Q&A takes so long at the end that by the time you finally make it to the dining room, the jacket potatoes and boiled salmon are finished and the only shop that sells food for miles around has closed for the day.
Of course, star power can't be argued with. You will have to turn up at least an hour in advance to hear the historical lectures of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who unlike his illustrious predecessor Lord Jonathan Sacks is braving the Haredi gauntlet and taking part in a conference where Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and every other kind of rabbi (and laypeople also) are treated as legitimate speakers; likewise the four performances by David Wolpe who is the kind of celebrity rabbi who gets on tedious lists of the 50 greatest Jews of our age.
But why follow the herd? Set yourself above the crowd and be a Limmud snob.
There are dozens and dozens of speakers you may or may not have heard of whose sessions will be a lot less predictable and much more informative who you will be able to listen to in more intimate and comfortable surroundings and you will have ample time to find a seat and reach your meal or next lecture after. And at dinner you can tell your companions of this brilliant young (or slightly older) lecturer they missed. That's how to do Limmud in style. Here are just a few suggestions of speakers that not everyone will be going to hear but you shouldn't miss (I certainly wouldn't if I was going to Limmud this year).
To hear about fascinating periods of history, I would go and hear Benjamin Pogrund, the former deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail on how things were really like for Jews in Apartheid South Africa, Jaime Casas on the relationship between Spain and Spanish Jews after the Expulsion and since on anything Baruch Spinoza is interesting, check out Jonathan Davies talks on whether the Dutch philosopher was a renegade Jew?
For Israeli current affairs, eschew anyone representing the government or the Jewish Agency, and head for some real hardcore talk with the likes of Talia Sasson who authored the Justice Ministry's explosive report on hilltop settlements, Channel 10's security correspondent Or Heller and Breaking the Silence's Brad Pitt look-alike Avner Gvaryahu for an un-Orthodox take on the Israel Defense Force, and of course don't miss Haaretz's Jerusalem blogger Ilene Prusher and correspondent Judy Maltz who will be presenting two of her documentary films.
Now if there was a hipsters' Limmud, people like the quirky Dan Jacobs, who will be talking on such diverse issues as ethical kosher eating and the mystical sects of the first century would certainly be headlining it. And so would speakers such as Tomer Persico, the foremost authority today on contemporary Jewish sects and other assorted weirdos, founders and stalwarts of London alternative Jewish scene and "grassroots" minyanim, Gabby Pomeroy and the Swedish (nothing more hipster than that) Daniel Reisel who is also a doctor and has things say on the Jewish/medical intersection you won't usually hear from your family GP.
For a slightly more establishment though no less original take on today's British-Jewish life, hear Jonathan Boyd of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (who has the rather unique advantage on other speakers of actually knowing the facts and figures) and Abigail Morris, who has brought a rare marketing flair to the small Jewish Museum in London with exhibitions on Amy Winehouse and mythological Jewish footballers.
For different takes on Jewish life around the world you can hardly do better than Jane Eisner, the editor of America's Jewish Daily Forward, Sally Berkovic, the CEO of the Rothschild Foundation (Yad Hanadiv) in Europe, Manfred Gerstenfeld, without doubt the greatest authority on anti-Semitism today and Micha Odenheimer, who has been everywhere and what he doesn't know about tiny far-flung communities probably isn't worth knowing.
If you really can't pass your week at Limmud without hearing at least a couple of rabbis, then instead of crowding in to see the superstars, go listen to Yuval Cherlow, founder of Tzohar in Israel and a rare Orthodox rabbi who doesn't shy away from any question or moral dilemma. And while some British rabbis are slugging it out on whether or not it's at all kosher to go to Limmud, why not seek out Jonathan Wittenberg for a different rabbinical style, one that it always kind, compassionate and thoughtful. You won't regret going against the flow and being a Limmud snob.
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