Living the learning life at Limmud NY
Reflections on a Presidents Weekend retreat
Magical bowls. Yiddish lullabies. The three ways by which a person’s character is measured, as per Rabbi Ilai in the Babylonian Talmud.
Those are just a couple of moments at the weekend extravaganza of Jewish learning at Limmud NY last weekend. Yes, New York is in its name, but Limmud took place in Connecticut, and New Jersey was well represented. It brought together nearly 800 people from the tristate area (and beyond) for four days of study, conversation, camaraderie, and Jewish geography.
Limmud NY is an independent group inspired by the original Limmud conference, which meets during Christmas week in England. There are dozens of Limmud conferences across America and worldwide, including in Russia and Israel. Most of the American conferences pale besides Limmud NY, which stretches over the Presidents Day weekend.
Limmud stands out from the other conferences and retreats that fill the Jewish communal calendar in three ways.
First, it is run primarily by volunteers. Limmud NY has one staff member, but the bulk of the planning, organizing, and even on-site running is handled by people committed to the idea of Limmud and its underlying ethic of “hey, kids, let’s put on a show!”
Secondly, it is proudly ideologically diverse. On Shabbat, you could choose from a two varieties of Orthodox services (one traditional, one a “partnership” minyan with expanded roles for women), a traditional egalitarian service, a Reform service with a dash of Indian customs, a Jewish Renewal service, or even just prayer-free morning yoga. Limmud is a rare space where Jews come together across the lines that divide them. Name tags highlight first names, and leave off institutional affiliations entirely. If you don’t know the name Arnie Eisen, you’d have no way of knowing that the person you’re speaking to in the cholent line is the chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
Thirdly, and no less importantly, Limmud is age diverse. Mine was not the only family with three generations represented. (My children have been going for years; this year I convinced my father to join us. He plans on returning next year.) There are babies and toddlers, and middle school students and teens, and college students and seminary students and twentysomethings and beyond.
And while there are programs organized for children by Camp Ramah and a teen lounge and teenagers playing games in the lobby on Shabbat afternoon, all Limmud sessions are welcoming to children interested in learning.
Which is how I ended up being challenged by Eliana, a third grader from Glen Ridge. She was one of a group of about seven people discussing the Torah portion on Shabbat afternoon; the rest of us were adults. One woman I think was a rabbi, and at least three denominations were represented. When the conversation turned to the idea that the Temple’s altar symbolized peace — after all, the Torah says it could not be made of stones cut by metal — Eliana asked, penetratingly, how could it be peaceful if it was a place of blood and slaughtered animals?
Unexpectedly new ways of looking at old texts was one of the threads that ran through my Limmud experience. I heard Maggie Anton, the author of the Rashi’s Daughters series, talk about the talmudic magic that became the background for her latest books, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” and “Enchantment.” The Talmud talks of magic and takes it seriously, but this, she said, is only a hint at an entire world of magical practice that archaeologists have uncovered. In recent years, thousands of pottery bowls inscribed with magical prayers to angels in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, have been discovered in Iraq. They were buried at the corners of houses to protect babies and pregnant women.
This might all seem very esoteric — except, Ms. Anton said, that the formula used in these magical inscriptions are in several cases the prayers for healing and welfare that later made their way to our prayer books.
Magic appeared in another class I attended, this one taught by Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein of Englewood, a professor at New York University. His work, in books like “The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud,” has looked at how talmudic stories changed between their appearance in the Jerusalem Talmud and their reappearance in the somewhat later Babylonian Talmud. In one of the texts Dr. Rubinstein taught on Saturday night, the Jerusalem Talmud tells of two students who were saved from death by snakebite because they had shared their bread with a starving man. They foiled the prediction of a gentile soothsayer. The story’s moral: The Jewish God can be satisfied with half a loaf of bread.
As retold in the Babylonian Talmud, the story loses a bit of its artistic symmetry but it gains a new focus on saving a man not from hunger, but from shame. This, said Dr. Rubenstein, reflects one of the Babylonian Talmud’s central concerns, the evil of shaming someone.
Dr. Rubinstein and Ms. Anton were featured presenters; they gave three or four talks and were guests of the conference. Another such featured presenter was Rabbi Avi Weiss. I went to his session on Shabbat afternoon; it was an intimate talk about how he created and named “Open Orthodoxy.” He began and concluded with a nigun. He told stories. And it was a way to hear someone — who in another context might be a headline speaker, filling a hall — talk softly and take questions before a relatively small group — perhaps 50 people.
Nikolai Borodulin displayed a different kind of magic. He is the coordinator of Yiddish learning at Workmen’s Circle, which presented three sessions of “Yiddish Ulpan.” Mr. Borodulin used exaggerated dramatic movements and facial expressions to help a class understand Yiddish, one word at a time. His core texts were two famous Yiddish songs, one by Sholom Aleichem. He crouched, he jumped, he stretched, he importuned — and he gave us, if only for a moment, enough Yiddish to understand “Tumbalalaika.”
But it wasn’t only the invited guests who taught. A principle of Limmud is that everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. Anyone who attends Limmud can offer to present a class. And presenters are not secluded backstage when they’re not speaking; they eat meals with everyone else and they attend sessions that interest them. The program lists 140 presenters, with topics ranging far beyond Talmud and Yiddish to include film, American Jewish life, Israeli politics, parenting, and even home organizing.
My Limmud experience accordingly was only one of many possible paths through the overstuffed program — sessions ran until after 11 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday nights they were followed by concerts. Could I have been in two or three places at a time, I would have loved to have listened to the two panels by people who had grown up in the charedi world and left; the discussion on liberal Zionism by former Knesset Member Ruth Calderon; the panel on coming out as an Orthodox parent of a gay child; and the discussion between two Manhattan rabbis — Shai Held of Mechon Hadar and David Ingber of Romemu — on their different paths from Ramaz, where they both went to high school, and on Rabbi Held’s egalitarian halachic approach to Judaism, compared with Rabbi Ingber’s Jewish Renewal perspective.
There are other places where Jews of different denominations come together — conventions of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Jewish Federation of North America put religious differences aside in common cause — but I can think of no place where the barriers between one kind of Jew and the next are as porous as they are at Limmud. A traditionalist Jew can discretely try out a Renewal service featuring musical instruments. And a Reconstructionist professor can say, as she heads to the train station, that this was her first time really meeting and getting to know Orthodox Jews.
The Limmud application form is pretty straightforward, but one question has stumped me time and again. What kind of a Jew do I identify as? I don’t feel comfortable checking off any of the standard denominational boxes. Generally I make up something, more or less clever, for the box labeled “Other.” This year’s Limmud, though, solved that question for me once and for all. I know what kind of Jew I am. I’m a Limmud Jew.