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Limmud uncovered

by: Cara Wides - Last updated: 2007-01-10

Eating at Limmud

Eating at Limmud

For around 2000 people in Nottingham University on December 25th 2006, there was absolutely no sign it was Christmas Day.

They may not have had access to the EastEnders Christmas special but there was far more interesting things to view – talks on Jewish culture, education, history and religion for starters.

These lucky folk were all participants on Limmud 2006 – the conference based in the university campus from December 24th to the 28th. Concieved over 25 years ago, Limmud has blossomed into a mammoth event involving hundreds of speakers – many of them leaders in their fields. Being a Jewish event, the dining facilities always generate a lot of comment among participants.

I reckon that unless Gordon Ramsey does the catering, people are always going to whinge about the grub. I didn’t find it too bad – it was good to see meat on the menu after its absence at Limmud 2005. I also liked the way that there was tea, coffee and biscuits available at lots of points around the conference – I’m sure I drank an Olympic swimming pool’s worth of tea with soya milk over the five days.

Limmud is a major networking event and also a chance to bump into that spotty boy who flicked tissue balls at you at Cheder (accompanied by  his wife and two kids).

There isn’t meant to be ‘Progressive Judaism’ slant to the event – lots of United Synagogue members attend and are happy with the level of observance upheld by Limmud’s organisers (kosher food, an eruv for Shabbat etc).

However there have been murmurings in the Jewish community that the event is under attended by the orthodox sector, but more on that later. When you arrive at conference you receive this huge book with maps, tips on getting the most out of your time, and a list of events. One of the tips is not to try and go to a session in every available slot of a given day, or you will burn yourself out.

There were people around who hadn’t read the ‘Tips Page’ – and could be seen running around the campus panicing that they might miss out on something fantastic. They probably spent the entire journey home trying to get their breath back.

The mammoth conference guide had a handy section identifying which lectures you should attend if you had a certain interest, say family issues, spirituality or politics.

When I first looked through the programme I felt disappointed that there weren’t more big names –in previous years they have had TV Scientist Lord Robert Winston, Evening Standard assistant editor Norman Lebrecht and journalist and author Melanie Phillips.

The only people I felt excited about were the American historian Deborah Lipstadt and the Liverpool-Riverside MP Louise Ellman. However I absolutely hung my head in shame as it became clear that at any given time there were around eight speakers I'd have enjoyed listening to. Even an obscure talk given by two idealists in their 20s about time spent in a USA-based Jewish retreat centre was fascinating.

My favourite lecturer at Limmud 2006 still turned out to be Deborah Lipstadt. She gave six talks during the conference and the two I went to  were so packed that people even sat on the floor (someone was practically  sitting on her feet). Lipstadt discussed her court case with David Irving,  but as well as the gripping subject, she was a funny, warm, sharp character.

As you’d expect, antisemitism in the UK was under the microscope, with some penetrating panel discussions including one featuring John Mann, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism. This was one of the many lectures with a question and answer session, which made the audience feel their opinions were equal to the experts.

Limmud also addressed interfaith relations – I unenthusiastically stumbled into a discussion group on Jews and Muslims in the UK, planning to recoup some lost energy with a doze. I left the session moved by the the work of Alif-Aleph UK – a grass-roots organisation which brings together the two religious communities with social events. As a result of this talk I now
want to organise a night out for Jewish and Muslim journalists to meet.

One of the biggest names at Limmud was Dan Patterson – the man responsible for writing and producing some of the best British TV comedy of recent years, including Whose Line is it Anyway?

He chaired a panel discussion (which included the respected East End-born writer Bernard Kops) about recent events in the Jewish arts scene, including Borat - Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Views on this film had everyone sitting up in their seats.

To me there didn’t seem to be any major hiccups during the conference, but what were things like behind the scenes? Andrew Gilbert, chair of Limmud International has been involved with the event for years and was pleased with how things went.

“2006 was a good all round conference, as lots of different perspectives were represented. It was good on text, on gender studies and on contemporary issues, to mention but a few.”

He told me Limmud gives participants a chance to meet people that they wouldn’t normally encounter. “It always surprises me the effect the conference has on people’s lives – I know of individuals who afterwards have taken up Jewish text study or given up their job and changed to one in the Jewish community.”

Unfortunately Andrew noticed the politics of the UK Jewish community still applied at Limmud. “I would love to see more leaders of the orthodox community attending, such as the president of the United Synagogue. I am sad that leading orthodox rabbis chose not to be there.”

It is a shame that these politics cast a slight shadow over what was otherwise an uplifting event. Limmud should be acknowledged as a triumph for Anglo-Jewry by Jews of all backgrounds.

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