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A newfound fascination with exploring her religion brought a somewhat reluctant joiner to Limmud NY, a frenzied three-day festival of Jewish thought. Here’s her diary.

Abigail Pogrebin
January 21, 2011
Abigail Pogrebin at Limmud NY.(Shulamit Seidler-Feller)
Abigail Pogrebin at Limmud NY.(Shulamit Seidler-Feller)

My husband and children were flummoxed when I told them I’d be presenting three sessions at Limmud NY—a three-day gathering of Jewish rabbis, educators, thinkers, artists, and enthusiasts who study and explore a huge menu of Jewish texts and ideas. I’ve been on a Jewish-learning jag since writing my first book, Stars of David, in which I interviewed 62 Jewish celebrities about their Jewish identity, or lack thereof, and the fascination has crept up on me—and indirectly, on my family—bit by bit: a Torah group here, a lecture there, a seminar here, a synagogue class there. But it’s one thing for my middle-school-aged children to see the pile of Jewish-oriented books swelling on my nightstand (Heschel’s Sabbath, Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, Sacks’s Haggadah, and so on); it’s another for me to leave them for a three-day weekend to go study by myself with strangers. Obviously I could have asked my family or a friend to come along. But I’m realistic about the fact that 72 hours of nonstop Jewish exegesis and revelry is not everyone’s Disneyland, though it’s secretly mine.

So, I set out solo for the Catskills (Kerhonkson, New York, to be specific) with both anticipation and angst, listening to country music in the car so I could pretend to still have one foot in the secular world that I was temporarily leaving behind.

This is the candid diary of a first-time, ambivalent Limmudnik.

Friday, January 14, 2011

11:55 a.m.: I pull into the Hudson Valley Resort near New Paltz, a hulk of a building with faux classical statues lining the circular driveway, and rush in without my bags to register and get to class. I run to the bathroom for road relief and notice a note on the plastic bottle of dishwashing liquid next to the sink: “Use this to wash your Limmud mug.” I think, When do I get my Limmud mug? Have I already missed the party favor?

12 p.m.: In an L-shaped conference room with a pretty view of snow and trees, Rabbi William Friedman is already teaching: “Creating an Egalitarian Day for G-d.” I try to catch myself up with Friedman’s interesting analysis of Sabbath strictures in Exodus. He posits that Shabbat was the first labor law; we’re commanded to rest so that our servants can. Cessation of work is non-hierarchical. A rabbi in the audience puts it shrewdly: “According to Torah, rest is the context in which equality exists.”

12:50 p.m.: I hurry to Yaffa Epstein’s class on Hillel. Epstein is a 20-something spark plug of a Talmud teacher who speaks very fast. Before sending us off in pairs to study the texts, she asks us to illustrate with our hands the meaning of “chevrutah,” study partner. People tent their fingers, interlock them, or snap their hands open and close like mouths. But Yaffa pounds her fist into her palm saying, “The point of chevrutah is to push us somewhere we can’t get to on our own.”

1:55 p.m.: Many sessions tempt me for this time slot (there are sometimes as many as 10 happening simultaneously), including “How Do We Obtain Forgiveness on Yom Kippur?”; “Can We Get Serious About Meditation Practice?”; “Zionism 101.” I choose sex. Doreen Seidler-Feller, an elegant, silver-haired South African-raised professor who has been associated with the Human Sexuality Training Program at UCLA and counsels a range of couples—including Orthodox Jews—about sexuality, talks about how our “consumerist culture” (texting, IM-ing, Facebook) has changed the “sexual ethic.” She suggests there’s value in turning to Jewish tradition to get us back to genuine relationships and intimacy. I start worrying that my children, now in 6th and 8th grades, will never learn how to interact face-to-face; all they know is text-flirting.

3 p.m.: I have just a half-hour before the official welcome event, and as I run through the lobby to get my bags from the car, I notice the crowd is younger than I predicted. Alongside the seniors and my own 40s-to-50s cohort are hip klatches of people in their 20s and 30s, many with young kids careening around or being pushed in strollers. I find myself for a moment regretting that I didn’t take my children here years ago when they were too young to object. Not only would they have enjoyed it, I can hope (the Limmud day camp looks merry from afar), but they would have grown up with a familiarity of seeing this many Jews gathered simply to learn and hang out: not a bad snapshot of our people. Just as I idealize this, I hear a 4-year-old kvetching about needing more cookies right this minute! I know it’s never so simple.

3:15 p.m.: Schlepping my bags through the lobby feels like a walk of shame: I’ve over-packed and feel sure I look like Tevye’s family carrying all their belongings from Anatevka. When I get to my room, I see it has a view of the Shawangunk Mountains. I try to dismiss the bird smudge on the window because I don’t want to be the snobby New Yorker who can’t handle a worn hotel room. If I were a Zen Jew, I’d just be grateful for the nice view.

3:30 p.m.: I’m not Miss-Join-In, but the enthusiasm in the packed auditorium—there are more than 700 people here—is infectious. This New York incarnation of Limmud (“learning” in Hebrew) began six years ago, based on Limmud UK, which has been in existence for 30 years and draws huge numbers. This conference draws mostly from New York and New Jersey, with a sprinkling of foreigners from the U.K. and Australia. The two co-chairs, 20-somethings who’ve been put in charge of the conference this year, shout, “This is your Limmud!” People cheer. A charismatic facilitator asks us to group ourselves by how many Limmuds we’ve attended, and I make my way over to the largest cluster, the first-timers, which makes me feel less like the conspicuous-rookie-with-too-many-suitcases.

4:30 p.m.: There are rows of unlit tea lights arranged on tables in the lobby and handwritten signs encouraging us to light our own. It’s surprisingly sweet to say a private blessing, and I think of my family, who didn’t make me feel too guilty about leaving them to pursue my Jewish edification. I miss them.

6:30 p.m.: At dinner, I have seating anxiety because I don’t have a friend here. But then I spot Rabbi Jennifer Krause, an old pal and great teacher whom I didn’t know was attending, and she rescues me. Sitting on my other side is Karen Radowsky, the co-creator of Limmud NY, who explains that there are 55 Limmuds in the world, eight in the United States. It’s affirming to hear how it keeps on spawning. The blessings are recited and sung by the entire room; there are long lines for hand-washing, and I gauge how much wine won’t compromise my lucidity before my first talk in two hours. The fish doesn’t appeal, so I eat too much challah.

8:45 p.m.: My first presentation (“Bored Jews in Synagogue,” about the malaise of worship for so many of my peers and our children) is about to begin, and I feel like kissing every person who walks into the room. I had worried that no one would come. More than 50 people attend, and the talk sparks a spirited discussion, including ideas about how to reinvigorate Saturday mornings for many who feel stuck and uninspired.

10:15 p.m.: I hurry to one last session of the day, which is—I’ll use the hyperbolic word—awe-inspiring. Shai Held (from Mechon Hadar yeshiva in Manhattan) is a master communicator and makes text feel rich and crucial. His room is packed. He distributes a sermon by Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav about seeing the best qualities in even people we dislike. So many of Held’s questions are hard for me to confront personally: Do you believe that by seeing the good in someone, you can actually change them? Is there a power in just the effort to look for the best in someone? Nachman’s concluding idea: that true leaders are those who can find “a grain of good”—“some mitzvah”—in every human being. He maintains that this is what it means to lead and move other people: to see them generously. That’s the work of a rabbi. “How can you be a leader of other people and represent them before God if you don’t like them?” Held asks. I raise my hand to ask whether one good act or trait should be enough to redeem someone. Held ventures that Nachman might respond that “Even one little piece makes transformation possible—everyone is ‘tzadakable.’ ” He smiles at the made-up word.

11:30 p.m.: I stop by the “tisch” before going up to bed. Jen Krause had explained to me that it’s a time for people to sit around drinking, singing, “performing” Torah. When I duck my head in, it looks like a Poetry Slam—when a young, long-bearded man finishes rapping, others start humming a hearty niggun, pounding the tables like drunken sailors.

12 a.m.: When I climb into bed, I realize I feel happy. And I find a sweet coincidence when I pick up my book—Jonathan Galassi’s new translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s poetry. I turn to a random page and stumble on lines that echo exactly what I’d stressed in my talk on re-energizing our tradition:

“… how do you constantly
Bring our ancestors to life again;
And let them speak to this dead century
In its haze of tedium?
And, language of our fathers
Silent so long, how is it
We hear you loud and clear and often now?”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

8:15 a.m.: Since when is dipping a tea bag in hot water a violation of the Sabbath? No one I ask at my breakfast table seems to know, but they venture a guess that maybe it’s because the tea changes the water when it enters it, and, indeed, when I go on the Internet later to check (another Sabbath violation) I see that the hot water “cooks the leaves,” and cooking is obviously prohibited. This is all to say that—despite the Sanka (which I don’t count as coffee) and the hotel’s pre-made, room-temperature tea in a pitcher—there is no caffeine to be had at this early hour! Even rabbis are complaining quietly that they’re suffering from withdrawal.

9 a.m.: I’m in the conspicuous minority skipping morning services and sampling a different kind of spirituality: “Nefeshbliss Partner Yoga.” Our mats are close together in a room near the indoor swimming pool, and instructor Becca Rosen asks us to create our own “Kiddush cup” with our hands and get in touch with our “nefesh,” or soul. I leave early because I have to deliver my “Bored Jews” talk a second time in a half-hour, and I’d rather not give my speech sweaty.

1:30 p.m.: Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, who runs UCLA’s Hillel (and is married to Doreen Seidler-Feller, the sex specialist), is like a brilliant mad scientist: so brimming with ideas and information that at times he seems to almost short out. I get hooked on the voltage of his delivery and attend three of his sessions during the weekend. In “Searching for God in Judaism,” he poses the perennial question: Why are Jews less inclined to be connected to God? The thrust of his lesson: Maimonides emphasized that if we learn and accept, as we should, that humans are not God, then we can aspire to godliness in the world.

4:30 p.m.: In the lobby, which has become a hub of snacking and schmoozing, there’s an endless stream of cookies and brownies on trays. After sampling too many, I’m hit with fatigue and go to my room to power nap and do a little of my own yoga without any nefesh.

6:30 p.m.: I drag myself hesitantly to the “community-wide Havdalah” service, and I don’t regret it. Rabbi David Ingber, of Renewal congregation Romemu on the Upper West Side, is a stirring speaker, and his band is rousing, though I don’t join the conga lines. The lit braided candles held aloft around the theater are letting off a lot of heat, and I’m hoping my deodorant is functioning when Nigel Savage of Hazon puts his arm around me to sway. Next thing I know, I find myself clapping my hands over my head to “L’cha Dodi”—something I don’t think I’ve ever done before in my life. I’m aware of feeling both giddy and awkward. If my kids were here, I might actually dance.

7:30 p.m.: Dinner on Styrofoam: I load up a sagging plate of lasagna and spaghetti (Jews and Buffets: A Love Story), preparing to eat on my lap in another Shai Held class—this one on Heschel and Maimonides.

9 p.m.: Lisa Klug’s “Cool Jew” slideshow is a welcome breather from the dense text study. My favorite in her collection of Jew kitsch: a pair of panties that read: “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”

10:30 p.m.: I skip karaoke but catch the end of a tribute to Debbie Friedman. People are standing up to sing her “Mi Shebeirach,” and I watch the tears from the back row, marveling at how this song will be sung in shuls forever.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

8 a.m.: At least the coffee urn is back up and running post-Shabbat.

8:30 a.m.: It’s too early in the morning to parse the Messiah, but Seidler-Feller is his own caffeine as he teaches “Zionism and Messianism: A Passion for Waiting.” I love how he summarizes Maimonides on Messianism: “If it’s worthy of the end of days, it’s worthy of today.” In other words, “Do the work of improving the world right now.”

9:45 a.m.: Another cookie. (Where is the session on “Carbs in the Diaspora”?)

10 a.m.: The second transcendent session of the weekend: Rabbi David Ingber and Joe Septimus on the Afikomen. Ingber’s words on the essentiality of brokenness make me choke up in a way that surprises me. “We all come broken,” he says, “and our brokenness can be that place that allows us to heal.” He posits that every child is a whole matzo, and only through maturity—i.e., breakage–do they grow up. I can’t count the ways this resonates. When I approach him afterward to introduce myself and thank him, he asks if I’m related to David Pogrebin. Yes, he’s my brother, I say, and he describes a literal brokenness: My brother apparently fractured the rabbi’s nose in a pick-up ice hockey game 10 years ago. He shows me where his nose is bent.

11:30 a.m: Ethan Tucker, yet another nimble teacher, is co-founder of the Upper West Side’s Mechon Hadar. Tucker compares the two tellings of Moses and the Rock—one in Exodus, one in Numbers—and asks why this event is credited, fairly or unfairly, with Moses getting barred from the Promised Land. His interesting proposition: Maybe the rabbis pegged this parable as the moment of Moses’ misstep because they had to find some moment of culpability; otherwise we were left with the notion that a righteous person can be punished severely for the sins of others.

1:15 p.m.: Third round of Seidler-Feller: This time, he gives a primer on Islam. My head is starting to explode, and my daughter Molly is texting me to come home.

2:45 p.m.: I give my last presentation, this one on famous Jews and whether a public life is incompatible with an observant one. Many people come and appear to enjoy it, although one man in the audience has such a pronounced, hysterical laugh that it’s ruining the funny lines. I want to hit him. Then I think of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav and try to find the good in this man.

4:30 p.m.: I check out of the hotel a day early. Partly because of my daughter’s pleas, partly because I’m filled up and want to leave sated, not over-saturated. It was enough for now. I head south on the Thruway, but I feel like my Jewish journey—“journey” is such an Oprah word, but it’s apt here—has really only just begun.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and One and the Same. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.