The bus to Nottingham has a Merry Christmas sign in the rear window, red and green tinsel along the overhead rack, and purple globe ornaments hanging from the ceiling. You’d never guess it was headed to Limmud, five days of performances, panels, seminars, and discussions, from “Jerusalem Graffiti” to “The Prophet Elishah—Doctor or Dentist, and Does it Matter?”
Now in its 24th year, Limmud (Hebrew for learning) sounds both exciting and absurd, like a cross between an academic conference and Burning Man. It’s an annual phenomenon that attracts more than 2,000 Jews of all ages, however secular or observant. It has inspired similar festivals around the world—New York will have its first Limmud in January—but none approaches the size or reputation of the original.
If it were in the States, I probably wouldn’t go, for the same reasons I never joined Hillel or a youth group: I prefer my Judaism disorganized. But I spent two summers in the U.K., living in London and Oxford, backpacking through Scotland, Wales, and the Lake District, talking to strangers in hostels and railway stations. Never, to my knowledge, did I meet anyone Jewish. The only time my own background came up was when I was offered (and sometimes accepted) a pork sausage. Who came to this conference, and could it really be any fun?
On the bus, I sit next to Nicole, a 25-year-old with clear plastic glasses and blonde streaks in her hair. Originally from Glasgow, she studies entertainment law. When she moved to Notting Hill a few years back, a friend encouraged her to go to Limmud, “the first Jewish thing I’d done since I was 12.” The experience “blew me away,” she says. This year’s she’s presenting a talk, “Yiddish is Dead and Living in New York (London, Paris, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv…).” She’s excited for her own trip to New York next week; I hesitate to tell her it may not be as she imagines.
Turning around, I see a girl with dreadlocks and multiple piercings, a man with a striped mohawk, a mother with short black hair and her bright-eyed son. Behind me sits Oshrit, a painter who moved to London from Jerusalem two years ago. There’s Shoshana, a molecular biologist who runs a Jewish book club at Cambridge. At first, I don’t even realize Barrett, a drama student, is American; he’s picked up a slight accent since moving here, and tosses around words like “whereabouts,” much like I used to do. His girlfriend, a conference volunteer, convinced him to come.
Everyone seems to be talking across the aisles or through the spaces between chairs, smiling emphatically, anxious to arrive. I’ve spent inordinate hours on British buses and trains, watching hills, hedgerows, and houses roll by but never once hearing or saying the word “Jewish.” Suddenly it seems strange not to.
“Where are you all headed?” I ask a trio in dark wool coats on the way to one of nine buildings Limmud has taken over on the University of Nottingham campus.
“I don’t even remember,” says one woman, who then reaches into her bag and pulls out her inch-thick spiral-bound handbook. Every day is divided into 10 time slots, with as many as 25 programs competing for your attention and hardly a break in between. “We sometimes just show up and see what’s on,” another says.
For a first-timer, Limmud can feel overwhelming, like the opening days of freshman year. This morning alone, I’ve been to a pseudo-Marxist discussion of globalization and the Tower of Babel led by a Reform rabbi with a thick Israeli accent. Then onto “Wrestling Within: Judaism and Psychotherapy,” by a Canadian woman in a black beret who sounds like Barbra Streisand. I took notes with mechanical drive and deliberate focus, nodding in agreement or arching an eyebrow, but couldn’t help wondering if I was missing something better. Too often the classes devolve into spiritual shouting matches or rousing games of Stump the Speaker, and too many people trying to prove past conclusions rather than reach new ones. I was hoping for a Jewish Studies seminar, but it feels more like Hebrew School.
Looking through the vast schedule, I’m frustrated by how many focus on politics and spirituality. The bread and butter of my usual diet—novels, movies, television, theater—are fewer and farther between. Most people choose speakers rather than subjects, based on a personal connection or recommendations from previous years, but the only names I recognize are ones I learned since joining Nextbook. While the program staff invites a wish-list of international and local speakers, they encourage everyone to teach, whether journalist, rabbinic student, or chemical engineer—all you need is a topic.
The woman in a wool coat flips to the correct page and reads dramatically: “Human Trafficking: The Shame of Israel and the Disgrace of Zionism.” I tell them I heard it was cancelled. Disappointed but not defeated, they carry on up the road.
I wind up at “Seyder Tkhines: The Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women” by Devra Kay, one of a surprisingly small number of lectures about a book other than the Torah. Finally, I’m engrossed, scribbling the word bove-bukh, the name for Arthurian romances rewritten for the Yiddish woman reader. “Instead of sitting around the round table drinking mead,” says Devra, “they eat chicken soup.”
At 9 o’clock every evening, the lights are turned low in the Limmud lounge. By day a sleepy gathering spot for tea and coffee, it morphs into a densely populated pub. I arrive just before midnight. The party’s still going strong; whiskey, Guinness, and mixers all around. Though there are a few older and younger folks around, it’s dominated by single twentysomethings—packs of three of four huddled around tables, couples leaning along the walls. I’ve long since stopped noticing who wears yarmulkes and who doesn’t; the conversations here cross all obvious boundaries. (I’ve met a few gay men and women at Limmud, but the flirting here looks predominantly heterosexual.) But ask anyone whether they’ve come to Limmud looking for love, and chances are they’ll deny it.
It wouldn’t be so hard to believe if the promotional video didn’t feature two minutes of happy couples saying “We met at Limmud,” or if the opening night didn’t include “Speed Dating Through Theological Concepts”—”the afterlife, miracles, angels, fate, and the meaning of life,” says the conference guide. I can only imagine the painful pickup lines.
One woman tells me that, when she came home alone from her first Limmud, she wondered whether she was “a loser.” A conference volunteer says he knows lots of people who’ve met at Limmud, proposed at Limmud, then had “Limmud-babies.” The reason Limmud ends up being a great dating service, he says, is because it doesn’t try to be. He should know: He met his girlfriend last year just one building over.
After the bar closes, I check out a nearby lecture hall, where music performances have given way to an impromptu dance party. Maybe it’s British manners, but it looks pretty chaste compared to the parties I remember from college. Back outside the lounge, a handful of people are still talking about a packed seminar I attended several hours earlier, “Porn Again Jews.” Many stars of early adult films were actually “nice Jewish girls with nice Jewish names” said speaker Nathan Abrams; only a few, like Debbie Duz Dishes, actually capitalize on it. Someone on the couch wonders whether Abrams really needed to show images of “socialist sex” at an Israeli orgy, but she sat through most of the session anyway. I finally get to bed around 3 a.m., hardly the last to leave.
“What is teaching?” That’s the question that starts today’s chavruta session, a daily ritual for more than 100 Limmud participants. Chavruta—Hebrew for friendship or partnership—is the traditional form of Jewish study: two people sit down and analyze a text together, each learning from the other.
I fight my way through the room before teaming up with Sam, an 18-year-old with curly brown hair. We read from a special study guide with quotes from the Torah and the sages on the right, Wordsworth, Einstein, and Homer Simpson on the left. I read aloud from Joseph Caro: “It is a positive commandment for a man to teach his son Torah. And if that man’s father did not teach him—then he must teach himself.” Sam, who goes to an Anglican private school, actually does study Torah with his dad. My parents sent me to the afternoon Hebrew school at our conservative Long Island synagogue; I promptly dropped out after my bar mitzvah and had never even heard the word chavruta before coming to Nottingham.
Since I started at Nextbook, I’ve become the leading expert on Jewish culture among my friends and family—this Hanukkah, my mother referred to me as SuperJew, even though I forgot the second menorah blessing. But at Limmud, I can’t help feeling a creeping inferiority. Speakers cite unfamiliar texts without explanation, students drop Hebrew words without pause. When I ask people here about their background, most tell me they come from Hendon or Finchley, what Limmud co-chair Batya Jaffa calls the “ghetto of London,” in the northern reaches of the city. They belonged to Zionist youth groups or their university Jewish society, and they’re still connected to a synagogue, either directly or through their parents. Every now and then I meet someone who calls himself a secular Jew, but it doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it does in the States: there isn’t Jewish culture here the way there is back home, with Jewish characters cropping up in novels, movies, and sitcoms.
A half-hour into the session, I find myself far more interested in the religious texts than the secular ones: perplexed by Shammai‘s elitism, fascinated by the eating metaphor in Ezekiel, “Feed your stomach and fill your innards with this scroll that I give you.” Most of all, I enjoy the method: I ask Sam to translate the Hebrew; he asks me to define “experiential.” It’s not all that different from sitting in a café with a friend discussing Daniel Deronda or Sigmund Freud.
Leaving class, my mind wanders back to my first year of Hebrew school, when I sat enchanted, listening to Mrs. Turetz, a Polish immigrant with the height, age, and ebullience of Dr. Ruth, read us Torah stories from an illustrated collection. I even remember waking up one day, making a conscious decision to read the morning prayers, but I quickly tired of the ritual. At many moments in the last year, I’ve wondered where that original enthusiasm went, a question Limmud has brought back to the surface. It could be I had the wrong teachers, or I just followed the example of my parents. Ultimately though, as Joseph Caro knows, the responsibility is my own. Maybe I’ve just chosen to read the world through a different set of sources.
Limmud ends the day before New Year’s Eve, and on my way out I ask a few people how they plan to celebrate on Friday night. “If you’re like me,” says Adam, who wears a yarmulke, “you’ll stay in and have a few friends over for dinner.” But Ben, who grew up in a Reform home and now does PR for Prince Charles, tells me about a party in South London, and invites me along.
It’s easy to ignore such faultlines after five days when no one’s had to decide whether to eat kosher or nonkosher meals, to socialize inside or outside their faith, to party into the morning or observe the Sabbath. Once you’ve made the choice to attend Limmud, all those boundaries dissolve. Introductions are unnecessary because everyone wears a name tag around their neck. You can approach a stranger and ask “What did you learn today?” and expect an enthusiastic answer.
What did I learn? I discovered the British spelling for beigel, and watched a Turkish singer belt out a Sephardic ballad with the passion of Celine Dion. I followed a 7-year-old to “Torah Yoga,” cringing a little at the explanation of “the light inside every one of us” only to find genuine relaxation in the elaborate postures. I heard a brief history of Anglo-Jewry from an 80-year-old “genuine cockney Jew,” and I danced in a circle to Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu at a midnight jam session with only one pint of Tetley’s in my system.
In the past couple of days, I also learned how uncomfortable it makes me to introduce myself as a secular Jew, as I’d recently started doing back in New York. It suggests I have no spiritual values. If I explain my own peculiar practices—how I’ll eat chicken parmigiana but not a cheeseburger, how I pray whenever a plane takes off, how I spend Yom Kippur at synagogue but Rosh Hashanah at my parents’ house, where I find comfort in Sufjan Stevens’ Christian folk rock—I tend to feel embarrassed and parochial with less religious friends, or inadequate around more committed ones, whether Jewish or Christian.
Whenever I ask Limmud veterans about their first conference, they invariably say, “It blew me away.” Most people say they love how cross-communal it is—how people from all backgrounds, all ages, and all viewpoints can come together in one room. Jonathan Ariel, an education student at Surrey who’s writing a dissertation about Limmud, calls the conference a model of “open ethnicity”—a place to connect to community while still being an individual.
The truth is, I’ve often felt alone this week, more than I have among Brits before. Instead of celebrating cultural Judaism as I think of it—Philip Roth, I.B. Singer, folktales, Yiddish theater—the conference is a world bound more to faith and to Israel than secular accomplishments. I’m not sure if I’d come back to Limmud, but if I do, I’d want to lead a seminar of my own, maybe on new American authors or the legend of the Prague Golem—not the Michael Chabon version, but its multiple incarnations centuries before. It was studying the Golem in a college literature seminar that I first learned about Kabbalah, Talmud, and Rabbi Loew. That was also the first time I read Gershom Scholem and Jacques Derrida, or understood Walter Benjamin—who became my sages. I didn’t hear any of their names this week, but maybe next year will be different, if I have something to say about it. Or maybe I’ve already shared my version of Jewishness without really trying.