Going to Limmud Festival is always a source of wonderment: 2,500 delegates of all ages – from under one year old to over 90 – met at Pendigo Lake in Birmingham for the third year. Hundreds of sessions were given by an international cast of presenters…
Limmud never ceases to amaze and hearten. In spite of being transposed this year to a Birmingham Hilton, the spirit remains, as do the hierarchy-breaking conventions, eg all name badges equal, no Lord, Rabbi or other title allowed. People of all ages at erudite lectures as well as comedy and contemporary music shows – and happy to tell you about their experiences at dinner. Again the huge task of looking after 2,500 delegates was undertaken by a fresh team of volunteers (those working on the shuk where our stand was located were particularly delightful). Why was it in Britain that this incredible, now world-wide, phenomenon was founded, I wondered. Perhaps renowned British ‘amateurism’ gave more faith that teams of volunteers could be trusted to get things right. Anyway, it is certainly something British Jewry has to be proud of – and we were proud that one subscriber there described JR as “Limmud on paper”.
We were happy to meet many of you at Conference. Our badge worked well in bringing people to our stand. We had a record day in terms of new subscriptions. So thank you to the 50 who wore one and if you can keep it and wear it at other relevant occasions (Jewish Book Week, Limmud Days, synagogue functions, etc) it would help us enormously. There are still a lot of people who don’t know we exist.
The First Day. Addis Ababa.
We made it to the hotel just to dump our bags and then headed out straight away to meet with the 'Secret Jews' of Kechene. Of course, they're not so secret now. Their synagogue in a slum on the outskirts of Addis has a wall emblazoned with a menorah and other Jewish symbols. This is their story. In a period of intense persecution in Gondar some centuries before, a third of the community decided to leave for the centre of the country. They acted outwardly as Christians meeting in caves for Jewish worship. For 400 years they have only married each other, and kept their identity a secret till about 10 years ago when a group of young men defied their elders and 'came out' as Jews. They now have a synagogue in Addis.
When we arrived we were invited to take off our shoes and wash our hands before entering the synagogue. The room was small, the ark in the middle of the synagogue with seats ranged round the walls, because, they said, their ancestors had forgotten which direction to pray. This way each person prayed towards the ark, which being in the centre portrayed God as being in the centre of the world. By the ark a wooden post rose up to the ceiling. This portrayed the oneness of God. After an explanation, their chazzan started singing a song in praise of God that he had composed himself. His gentle voice and wonderful rhythmic African music in call and response to the men there had us all entranced.
They call themselves the North Shewa Zionist Association, but they are not recognised by Israel as Jews – unlike those who attend the Adenite synagogue – our second port of call. There was a profitable trade between Aden and Ethiopia that involved a number of Jews who settled for a time in the capital. One of these, Shalom Shelemay seems to have been particularly influential, bought land and built his offices and donated one room at the top of a staircase for the synagogue. This is a synagogue as we know it, small, but beautifully kept in true Yemenite style. Nowadays it is only used on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur and when members of the Israeli embassy entertain VIPs. There are still some Adenite Jews living in the city, but not enough to maintain regular services.
In the afternoon, hardly anyone took the option of resting and we visited the Ethnographic Museum set in the palace built by Haile Selassie and now part of the University. We saw some of the state rooms and the Emperor and Empress's bedrooms and bathroom and then followed the trail from birth to death as practiced by the hundreds of different tribes and cultures found in Ethiopia, a great introduction showing not only the country's diversity but its uniqueness. In the same vein we were reminded of the contributions the Italians made to Ethiopian culture in their few years of fascist occupation. Every town has a piazza, every menu offers pasta, coffee comes as espresso or macchiato and every Ethiopian ends a meeting with "Ciao". We ended our day in an Italian restaurant eating pizza.
Ciao for now.
By Sybil Sheridan
It was as an amazing experience as ever. I have been going to Limmud for 13 years and can never get over how a team of young volunteers, changing yearly, can put on such a huge event with its problems of feeding and housing 2,500, let alone running hundreds of stimulating sessions each day. It is a heartening wonder of the modern world. And this year even the food was great (congratulations Manchester-based Celia Clyne Banqueting).
There were of course many JR readers there and I asked a few about their best Limmud experience.
Mentioned most frequently was the sight of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Senior Rabbi of the Reform Movement Laura Janner-Klausner, deep in conversation at the bar – at an event that a couple of years ago was boycotted by United Synagogue Rabbis and that Jonathan Sacks never attended while he was Chief Rabbi.
Several seconded my selection of the JDOV talk with Patrick Moriarty, head of JCOSS and, amazingly, a trainee Anglican priest. His very funny and affectionate take on his own experience of the Jewish world, not neglecting the firmness of his own faith, was an encouragement for the future of interfaith relations. These filmed talks (Jewish Dreams, Observations, Visions) with their very personal and original perspectives can be viewed on the JHUB website. The 12 from this year's Limmud ("the highlight of my Limmud afternoons," says Anne Clark) should be up there shortly.
Anne Clark gave these additional highlights: "By far the best teacher for me this year was the wonderful Gila Fine from Jerusalem, whose packed-to the-gills series on A History of The Talmud in Four Objects was a masterclass in scholarship and presentation. My favourite musical performance was a concert by Craig Taubman. Craig was skilled and generous enough, not only to engage the entire audience, but also to share the stage with a crowd of young British musicians; Zara Tobias singing a solo in Craig’s 'Yad b’ Yad' ('Hand in Hand', watch it below) accompanied by EJ Cohen’s sensitive signing, was a spine-tingling revelation."
Artist Ruth Jacobson also had a musical experience that delighted her: "''Shtel Dem Samovar', with Rachel Weston and Jason Rosenblatt, first a workshop of Yiddish song, then a concert. Rachel's beautiful voice conveys the sweetness and poignancy of her repertoire."
Ruth was also fascinated by the work of Edward Serotta: "His beautiful exhibition of old family snapshots, combined with interviews with some of Central Europe's oldest Jews, created a vivid and moving 'Library of Rescued Memories'. These are used in many educational projects, and captivate the enthusiasm and interest of new generations."
Ari Shavit was the presenter mentioned most often. From Brighton's Doris Levinson: "The highlight of my week was the interesting and enlightening, and even shocking, talk given by Ari Shavit about his book My Promised Land – the triumph and tragedy of Israel. He is such an accomplished speaker with such depth and clarity. Everyone who gives lectures could learn a lot from his delivery, his timing and his sincerity."
JR Chairman Ian Lancaster was impressed by "Dr Joel Hoffman giving a very animated, erudite and energetic talk about the challenge of translating the Bible, given it’s written in a language that is no longer in use." And our Northern supremo Gill Komoly was enthused by "the passion and energy" Gershon Baskin put into his talks, telling of how he goes backwards and forwards on his motorbike to the West Bank. He was a skilled negotiator on the Gilad Shalit return as well as on many other issues.
Limmud features not only sessions. Delegates don't need any prompting to start talking to the people next to them at mealtime. One such conversation was a highlight for JR sub-editor Diane Lukeman: "It happened that sitting down with me at breakfast one morning was a Rabbi from Hamburg and Rabbi Soetendorp, whose account of growing up in the traumatised community of Amsterdam had resonated with me at my first Limmud experience and had influenced my professional work with children and families. We all became so engrossed in the conversation that we missed the start of our first session – with no regrets."
So passion, energy, sincerity, animation, generosity, humour and erudition, not to say enlightenment and revelation; not a bad series of epithets for a silly season experience.
By Janet Levin
For further information on Limmud, visit their website: www.limmud.org
A story of history uncovered
Alexandra Grime (pictured), a curator at the Manchester Jewish Museum, discovers that the artist behind a portrait of Mark Bloom is none other than Northern Jewish painter Emmanuel Levy. The picture of Bloom – founder of Colwyn Bay Synagogue and a horse trader during WWI – was donated to the museum more than three decades ago by the synagogue, but it was only when Grime was looking through Levy's scrapbooks, while researching the museum's current Levy retrospective, that she put two and two together. The Bloom portrait has now been added to MJM's exhibition.
Rona Hart – ex-Colwyn Bay, Southend and London, and now resident in Haifa – sees this item in the Jewish Renaissance fortnightly newsletter and is excited…
"That picture – of Mark Bloom – was part of my childhood. My heart really skipped a beat when I saw it – and for the first time since the 1950s!
Zion House (37 Princes Drive, Colwyn Bay) not only housed the tiny Colwyn Bay synagogue, but contained a ground floor flat that was rented out to religious families during the summer months, and another room, where I lived with my parents from 1947 to 1952. I was three years old when we moved in and was very happy there, running wild in the large gardens and surroundings. In the summer I played with the children of visiting rabbonim, which provided a culture shock in both directions, I should imagine.
I remember Mark Bloom as a very kindly man. Because we lived in the shul building, there was a good deal of post of one kind or another, with leaflets, posters, a map of Israel, and the like. I remember seeing one drawing of somewhere in Israel and thinking 'when I'm grown up, I'm going to go there. I won't tell anyone now, because they won't believe me, but one day I'm going to go.' I have no idea where that feeling came from.
A story I was told, but don't remember, was that Mark Bloom once gave me half a crown (a phenomenal sum!) and asked what I was going to do with it. When I said I would like to send it to the children in Israel, he promptly gave me another 2/6d. I probably still owe Israel a few bob.
I never knew Mr Bloom was a horse trader; he was our landlord and the founder of our shul, so he was treated with great respect. He was always very kind and generous, and not above showing interest in a very small (and probably unruly) girl. The painting was a very good likeness.
The small Colwyn Bay community (we had a Ladies Guild, a Cheder, etc. although we were only about a dozen families) closed some years ago, I believe in the 1970s. I still visit the area and have friends there."
Jewish Renaissance passes on the story to the Jewish Museum Manchester. They are thrilled.
By Janet Levin
Made in Manchester: The Art of Emmanuel Levy runs until Friday 29 May. Manchester Jewish Museum, 190 Cheetham Hill Rd, M8 8LW; 016 1834 9879. www.mjm.org.uk