Tuesday, December 29, 2009


David Newman tells about the Limmud phenomenon, where thousands of Jews of all stripes (except the leaders of the Haredi community) get together for an intensive week of learning about all matters Jewish, taking advantage of the Goyishe holidays and empty college campuses.

And despite this early, cold, uninviting hour, most of the lecture halls are full with people who have decided to spend the Christmas week in a program of intense, voluntary study. There will be classes on almost every possible topic relating to Jewish culture, religion, history and literature, as well as discussions and lectures on anti-Semitism, Israel, liturgy, prayer - just think of a topic and it is there. There will also be films, evening events, concerts and, for those who wish, an entire weekend Shabbat program prior to the commencement of the main conference.
I once participated in the Australian version, which is smaller than the UK original, and can testify that the copy was very impressive, so the original must be even more so. A week of learning: what could be more Jewish than that?

Near the end of his report, Newman wonders why there's no Israeli equivalent:
Limmud has also become international. In recent years, similar conferences have been organized in almost every part of the globe where there are significant Jewish communities. But the one place where it has been tried but never really taken off is in Israel. While many Israelis attend the annual event in the UK, their subsequent attempts to create similar meetings here have met with only limited success.

The idea that so many different people, professing so many different affiliations and attachments to Judaism and the Jewish world, could sit in one place and politely listen to each other, exchange views and learn from each other seems to go against Israel's non-pluralistic norm. Or perhaps it is the mistaken attitude that we in Israel don't have anything to learn about Judaism and Jewish ideas from the Diaspora. But ask any of the Israeli teachers, rabbis and professors who attend Limmud and they will all tell you what an exhilarating and refreshing experience it is.

I don't know how Israeli Jewry can be construed in any way as non-pluralistic. The variety of Jewish expression thriving within one mile of the Jerusalem room I'm sitting in right now is greater than at any time since before the destruction of the Second Temple (I mean it). He's right, of course, that Israelis are not capable of politely listening to one another, I'll grant that. Whether the idea comes from abroad or not is irrelevant to the local success, I'd think: you don't decide to go to a conference or not because there have been previous ones elsewhere.

I expect the failure of the Limmud model in Israel stems from a combination of factors. There's no equivalent "week off" in Israel except in August, but then anyone with children (=most people) go off to the beach or wherever the kids demand. There's no real reason to dedicate a week to reinforcing one's "Jewishness". There are ample opportunities to learn Jewish stuff all year round. There must be 12 other reasons. Still, he's right: there is no Limmud in Israel, and it's too bad.


Avi said...

In the politically correct world that we live, emphasising the difference between Israel and the Diaspora is much frowned upon. As one who came on aliya over 30 years ago from the UK I can definitely support Yaacov's position.

As Jews living in the Jewish State surrounded by all facets Hebrew culture all year round we are free to pick and choose what we want. This the essential difference between our lives here and our lives there. The Jews abroad need a Limmud, we have one all year round. That is one of the main reasons why I chose to live here.

I would also conflate and use interchangeably the terms Jewish, Hebrew and Israeli as they all overlap in their cultural input. This may be messy, but so is reality.

Anonymous said...

I am a Diaspora Jew. If it makes you feel better, every time I looked at a Limmud brochure, I felt ill - it always looked like a collection of pretend intellectuals getting together to talk about their pretend ideas or how to create a fusion of Judaism and some other momentarily trendy or popular ideology or cause.


Still . . . I wish them well.

Rob said...

Have become a big fan of your blog, Yaakov, so thanks for that. Re. Limmud UK: I've been a few times, including last year, and think it is over-rated. It's, frankly, too geeky and childish, and way too self-referential, eg all the "Limmudniks" who boast about how many times they've been to "conference" (the dropped participle suggesting it is like some trade union gathering). Jewish learning can happen anywhere and everywhere, especially online. Having another venue such as Limmud is fine but no need to fetishize it. There is also a big problem with all the concurrent classes, which makes the plethora of programming look good on paper but impractical in reality. I think they should video most or all of the talks and give people access to them online, but I realise that is not in the spirit of "conference" worship !

Anonymous said...

Limmud has conferences in Israel see www.limmudgalil.com