Something for everyone (but me)
WHEN THE assignment was first handed over, I kicked my desk and unleashed a torrent of expletives. It was my turn to cover the annual Limmud conference — and no tantrum would get me out of it.
Nor would a family wedding in Tel Aviv or an offer to holiday at a penthouse in New York over the New Year.
Instead, I was to report on a pluralistic love-in with 2,700 people who chose to spend the festive season revelling in their Judaism — or, as one Limmudnik put it: “Learning, laughing and feeling Jewishly liberated”. The whole concept is beyond me. We Jews have spent our history escaping claustrophobic ghettos, so why would organisers make one, over the Christmas holidays, in some remote part of Birmingham?
I proposed writing a pre-Limmud blog explaining why it was not the place for me. A piece that would detail why I did not want to spend the season playing with self-righteous academics who hate capitalism, or people who thought it appropriate to wear opentoe sandals in December.
But my offer was turned down and I was under strict instructions not to write or tweet anything that might get me banned from the conference (which was really the whole point of the proposed piece).
So, armed with two overnight bags, I picked up my two colleagues and we made our way up the M40 to Birmingham’s Hilton Metropole hotel, where the conference was being held.
On arrival, one thing was clear. This was the place where Christmas had come to die.
Across the country, people hold on to the festive season for as long as possible; but here, there were no classic tunes, extravagant decorations or jolly hats.
Instead, we were met by ruach- filled Limmud volunteers waving blue foam fingers in our face.
We had to walk past queues of Jews sifting through their eco-friendly welcome bags for a pink pass — which they would need to show to get the solitary meaty meal to which they were entitled during the conference.
As I stepped into the lift, I let out a sigh of relief — relishing the escape — before I noticed a bold sign asking all Limmud attendees to gather up their “tzedakah underwear (new pants, socks, bras)” for donations.
Instantly, I was thankful for having crammed in as much festive spirit as possible ahead of Limmud — anticipating the dearth that was to follow. On Christmas Eve, I went to an Irish pub. On Christmas Day with my family, I tucked into kosher turkey with all the trimmings. On Boxing Day, I hit Brent Cross, before heading to Sadlers Well’s to watch Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty ballet.
Obviously, I see the logic in banning a Christian festival from a Jewish conference — but it just made my sense of alienation from the rest of Britain all the more real. And there’s no escape.
You are confined to the Limmud ghetto for the duration of the conference, lest you dare to make the 20-minute drive via the motorway towards the city centre.
From morning to night, people bashed elbows as they made their way from session to session. Then, they queued for everything. They queued for toilets. They queued for a grab-andgo lunch sandwich (which ran out early on the first day).
They queued for dinner in the mezzanine, which ran on a school-like system of grab a wet plate, lay it on a wet tray, hold that out for caterers to slop on (perfectly edible) food, before searching for a free seat, eating and then heading to the end of the room to tip your leftover food, plates, cups and cutlery into a bucket. Outside the dining area, the session rush begins again. No wonder there was high demand for meditation rooms.
For escape, I tried the pool in the morning — but that soon became too crowded.
The Hilton spa was shut for the conference, so that was ruled out. The evening bar was filled with people sharing seats and squatting on the floor.
Describing the whole episode as life in a pressure cooker would be an understatement.
But… there is a reason that Limmud is as popular as it is. During my time there, I took part in as wide a range of sessions as possible: from reporting on events for the JC, and attending ones that I personally found interesting, to even taking part in a panel on media coverage of Israel.
It was all perfectly fine but not something that I would pay around £400 for — especially at a time where there is so much else going on in the world.
Without a doubt, Limmud is exactly what I expected it to be. The people are perfectly nice but they are, in the main, members of progressive movements, left-wing, academic and into holistic alternative medicine.
And the paradoxical liberal mindset came through when controversial right-wing journalist and best-selling author Tuvia Tenenbom was disinvited from a panel.
Although organisers cited lastminute logistical reasons, in my opinion this ban represented why Limmud — a conference that was supposed to welcome diversity — was just not for me.
Limmudniks seem to think that the conference offers something for everyone; but it’s not true. Not everyone likes to feel “Limmudy” (their word, not mine).
The likelihood is that if you suspect that Limmud is not for you (as I did); then you’re probably right.
I left exhausted, drained, and consciously more Orthodox, traditional and commercial than I ever suspected.
En route back to London, I hauled one colleague to Bicester Village in Oxfordshire; the shopping outlet where Christmas lived on, sales with flourishing and refreshingly disengaged people wore make-up.
Thank the powers that be for Prada, is all I’ll say.
Call me a Jewish Princess if it makes you feel better — but I would much rather be that than a Limmudnik.
Limmud goes digital: happy attendees at this year’s event
Elbows bashed as people made their way to sessions