Limmud Draws 2,000 British Jews for Five Days of Study

NOTTINGHAM, England - Why does the British weekly The Jewish Chronicle write "anti-Semitism" with a hyphen and not as a single word? Why do the Israeli spokesmen always speak on the radio in English with such a bad accent that they can't be understood? And why is there no new Abba Eban? After all, we need one.

British Jews are a bit worried. The neighbors are asking them about Israel's actions in the territories, the BBC said Israel Defense Forces soldiers had received orders to attack children, the Muslim community is walking with its head held high and the Jewish community is shriveling. As the United Kingdom celebrated Christmas and the end of 2005, some 2,000 British Jews spent their vacations on the snowy Nottingham University campus, for the 25th Limmud Conference.

Despite its archaic name, the conference is a unique social and intellectual enterprise. It featured some 1,000 lectures given by 300 speakers - about 30 lectures at any given time - and the lecture halls were crammed from morning to night. They dealt with the sexual identity of the biblical Joseph, the Jewish identity of Albert Einstein, the "mystic midrash" of Bob Dylan, how you say "rock `n' roll" in Yiddish, and the life of a Jewish person who caught AIDS from another Jew in New York. Spiritual drumming, Zen and Torah, meditation and kabbalah, math and mishna, the kosher sutras, the welfare of animals in Israel and a lecture for women only called, "What's eating you?"

But don't let this esoterica mislead you either. The Limmud Conference also dealt with far more central issues: Attendees listened to Muslim imams from England, to leftists and rightists from Israel, to Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, to lesbians and gay men. Although England's chief rabbinate boycotts the slightly subversive conference, the community voted with its feet and came en masse.

An Israeli who encountered Limmud would be jealous - not only of the wonderful organization (all voluntary) or the intellectual curiosity displayed by the young and old, secular and religious, but first and foremost, of the air of tolerance that prevailed over the five days of the conference. Here they listened attentively to all opinions, a practice that is quite foreign to Israelis. Shahid Hussain, an imam of Kashmiri origin who studied Islam in Pakistan and Syria, and Rabbi Danny Rich from London, the chief executive of Liberal Judaism, discussed war and peace in Judaism and Islam. Neither of them, by the way, oppose war in principle; what must be decided is whether the Lebanon war was a defensive war and whether the intifada is an obligatory war.

But we don't have suicide bombers, said an elderly woman from Golders Green, a London neighborhood with a high Jewish population, but it was the only short-tempered comment directed toward the imam.

Jacqueline Rose, an English professor at Queen Mary University of London, put Zionism on the psychiatrist's couch. One person hurled an accusation at her, saying there are some Jews whose entire connection to Judaism is expressed by criticizing Israel. Rose, however, vehemently denied that her most recent book compared Zionism to Nazism. Even her controversial lecture was received with exemplary attention.

But the undisputed star of the conference was Dr. Avivah Zornberg, an ultra-Orthodox British woman living in Jerusalem, a political moderate and the mother of a settler. Zornberg, who has a doctorate from Oxford in English literature, filled the large hall every evening for her lectures on biblical figures. Jonah, Joseph, Isaac, Esau and Jacob were presented in modern attire and with a challenging analysis, replete with philosophical, psychological and literary underpinnings.

In the Jewish Anglo-Saxon world, Zornberg is a superstar. Some see her as one of the most important biblical commentators today, although few native Israelis know of her. Zornberg's analysis of the biblical Isaac drew twice as large an audience as a survey of the intifada. Only a performance by singer Etti Ankari filled the hall like Zornberg did; when Ankari spoke about her newfound connection to God, however, far fewer people showed up.

Despite the fig leaves of the imams and the Israeli speakers, the British Jewish community is primarily occupied with itself. It's not noisy like American Jewry or rightist like French Jewry; instead, a pall of discomfort hovered over the white snow blanketing the expansive grounds of the university campus. Between news of the occupation from Israel and news from the Muslim neighborhoods in Britain, with a rising rate of assimilation thrown into the mix, people lose their way a bit. One person suggested giving up on the Jewish right of return until the occupation ends, while another suggested bombing the Palestinians until they make peace. But they came here primarily to strengthen their Jewish identity - whether by increasing their awareness of the issues or by finding a Jewish romantic partner.

Many of the participants wore skullcaps - some of them only here, in the pleasant bosom of the community. When they return home they'll go back to walking around bareheaded. Robert Winston, a member of the House of Lords, a gynecologist and a well-known fertility expert, was wearing a black velvet skullcap as he sold his new book on God. The food was English and kosher, an impossible combination for human consumption.

There was a stand signing people up against violence in Jewish families, a stand promoting self-defense training for youth and an exhibit on Einstein sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. And as for the hyphen in The Jewish Chronicle: The editor, Jeff Barak, suggested that the questioner send a letter to the editor. He will make sure the letter gets published, and then, perhaps, a discussion will ensue.