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Feast of Eden
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Feast of Eden

Founded over 30 years ago and largely volunteer-run, Limmud blossoms over Christmas week at the University of Warwick like a Jewish Brigadoon.
Founded over 30 years ago and largely volunteer-run, Limmud blossoms over Christmas week at the University of Warwick like a Jewish Brigadoon.

“And what is the purpose of your visit?” the customs agent at Heathrow asked. I had to stop and think.

I was in England for Limmud Conference, five days of lectures, workshops, and performances by over 200 rabbis, professors, artists, musicians, and Jewish communal professionals.

I could have said “vacation,” but with all the networking and brainstorming that goes on at Limmud, it wouldn’t exactly be a week at the beach. “Jewish studies conference”? Yes and no. The level of instruction is high, but the audience is amcha — lay people — and not fellow academics. Limmud calls itself a “memorable week of individual learning and coming together as a community,” but I’m not sure the customs guy would have appreciated that.

By the end of my stay, I pretty much had my answer. Limmud is one part pilgrimage festival, one part Woodstock for adult education junkies, one part celebration of the myriad ways to connect to Jewish life. Founded over 30 years ago and largely volunteer-run, Limmud blossoms over Christmas week at the University of Warwick like a Jewish Brigadoon. Clutching their 200-page program books, over 2,000 people rush to sessions — over 1,000 in all — that begin at 8 a.m. and continue well past midnight. When I wasn’t leading sessions — on Jewish humor, American politics, and my other manias — I joined the crowds for sessions on Holocaust denial, Yiddish theater, the Prophets, the golem in Jewish literature, and anti-Semitism in Europe.

And that was Tuesday.

If you still can’t picture it, think back to the days you might have spent in the Catskills, when the mountains were still a Jewish thing. Try to recall what it felt like to play and hang with thousands of Jews — the kids off at day camp, the teens flirting by the pool, the adults bonding over card games, groaning over buffets, and cutting loose in the night club. Now swap the games and pool for Jewish learning (trust me — skip the buffet) and you have Limmud.

During my week at Limmud, I thought a lot about the Catskills and the other thickly Jewish phenomena that have gone by the wayside. A generation ago, spending time with crowds of like-minded Jews was organic. Most of us lived in Jewish neighborhoods, socialized with other Jews, vacationed at Jewish resorts and bungalow colonies. Admittedly, much of this was imposed by outside forces — restricted country clubs, unfriendly schools and professions. And it came with a price: Some no doubt found the self-segregation stultifying.

Nevertheless, there is something wonderful about gathering and celebrating with crowds of people who share your “language,” history, and destiny. Solomon Schechter called it “catholic Israel” (small-c, that is) and Mordecai Kaplan celebrated Judaism as a “civilization.” “Collective experience,” wrote Kaplan, “yield[s] meaning for the enrichment of the life of the individual Jew and for the spiritual greatness of the Jewish people.”

Or, as a famous history of the shtetl put it, “Life is with people.”

Limmud UK was founded at a moment when these ethnic bonds were fraying. ''You gain acceptability and assimilation, but you lose Eden,” Stefan Kanfer, who wrote a history of the Catskills, once told an interviewer.  “You cannot have them both.” And if you couldn’t find catholic Israel outside of the synagogue, you’d have to recreate it — in the case of Limmud, around the theme of learning.

In session after session, I heard anxiety about the decline of Jewish peoplehood. Jonathan Boyd, executive director of Britain’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research, spoke of the rise and fall of the “golden age of peoplehood” — a period that began with the Six-Day War and ended somewhere around the Lebanon war of 1982. As Israel became more complex, as anti-Semitism waned, and as great Jewish causes like Soviet Jewry were resolved, Jews lost their collective purpose. The challenge has become, he said, “to recreate that sense of Jewish peoplehood.”

Levi Lauer, an Israeli educator turned human rights activist, spoke of the Jewish narratives — from ritual to Zionism — that no longer form the foundations for collective Jewish action. Dov Waxman, a political scientist at the City University of New York, imagined a communal conversation on Israel that was open to a “plurality of attitudes.” Boyd himself proposed that “the only way to build a sense of collectivity is to build opportunities for genuine dialogue.”

Limmud tries to model that kind of dialogue, in sessions that represent the range of Jewish interests, disciplines, and ideologies. You could point out those who weren’t there, from the haredi Jews who make up a growing percentage of British Jewry to the rabbis of Britain’s main congregational body, the United Synagogue. I preferred to focus on the wide range of people who did attend — Brits, Israelis, and Americans; Limmud International organizers from Europe, South America, and Asia; teens and grandparents; singles and couples; Judaic scholars in yarmulkes and trim gray beards and Jewish musicians in dreadlocks and bright pink highlights.

And here’s the good news: Because Limmud has now spread to some 50 countries, Jewish Brigadoons and Edens are popping up all over. Limmud NY, founded in 2003, is holding its own four-day festival of learning in our backyard, at the Hilton East Brunswick Hotel, Feb. 15-18.

I’ll see you between sessions.

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