Limmud Fest: Expanding Jewish Horizons Under The Stars

by Ariel Kahn

In its gorgeous new Suffolk location, this year’s Limmud Fest was blessed with some sunshine and an extraordinary degree of good cheer. Marketed as “the hottest festival in the British Jewish calendar”, the volunteer-run residential festival attracted a record 650 participants for four days of non-stop Jewish learning and culture. The sunny rolling hills of the South Downs were home to over 150 sessions of learning, the majority of which took place outdoors – a true celebration of Judaism without walls and a chance to embrace the Hebrew month of Ellul in the tradition of reflection and learning for which it is known. First timer Mikey Franklin, a London-based policitcal activist and educator summed up his experience in four words: “Fabulous, tiring, exciting, engaging.”

The focus on nature, the Pardes (The Orchard), Song of Songs and food created fascinating continuities between sessions and presenters of very different styles, so one could complement text study sessions and challenging debates with dance, movement and stand-up comedy workshops. As always, music was a real strength, with Sephardic music given a radical makeover by the Israeli band Shuk, founded by teachers and educators exploring the range of Sephardi musical heritage, and New Yorkers DeLeon, who gave the same tradition a groovy urban/rock makeover. A memorable musical havdallah and melaveh malkah under the stars led by band members and singers was accompanied by fire-swingers and fire-jugglers which helped sum up the Limmud Fest spirit.

A contingent of expert overseas presenters explored fascinating links between Jews, food, texts and sexuality, with American Rabbi Steve Greenberg and Israel’s top TV chef Gil Hovav looking at gay narratives in textual and contemporary sources. This was complemented by Film-Fest, showing a range of related films such as Ushpizim, with Bangor University’s Nathan Abrams leading discussions on the sticky relationship between Jews and food in film. This emphasis on revealing silenced and suppressed narratives reached its fullest voice in the fabulously witty Girls in Trouble, a U.S-based band helmed by Alicia Jo Rabins, celebrating the darkly adult world of the women of the Bible. In true Limmud style, Rabin’s contributions to the Fest programme included full concerts for an enthralled 600-strong audience, as well as equally popular text sessions exploring midrashic interpretations of a variety of women in the Tanach. New Limmud favourite Rabin Tweeted to her followers around the world from the event: “A Haiku for you: The hills are dotted / with sheep and Jews / It’s Limmud Fest ’10”

The relationship between Torah and the environment was treated both intellectually and experientially, with guided walks from LSJS’ Rabbi Natan Levy, planting, and tips on creating an edible Jewish garden from educator Nic Abery. Participants could move effortlessly from soul food to real food and back again, with plenty of more light-hearted and practical opportunities, to make organic beer, Israeli cookies, Rosh Hashanah dishes with chef Denise Phillips, Jewshi (Jewish sushi!), or just relax in the sunshine and meet new people from all corners of the Jewish community and from places as diverse as Estonia, Budapest, Jerusalem, Paris and Finland.

As usual, the 180 or so children of all ages were also excellently served, both by the enthusiastic and friendly youth leaders, and by bands such as The Macaroons. Children and families enthused about the well-attended educational sessions such as how to talk to your children about God led by local Jewish ethics teacher Mark Shoffren and family friendly sessions on halakha facilitated by internationally renowned Jewish educator and writer Joel Grishaver. As a parent myself, I hugely appreciated the efforts of the volunteers running all aspects of the families’ provision, from the Fest Nursery to the free babysitting, from the Shabbat family services to the toy-themed seuda picnic on Shabbat afternoon.

The sense of a community on a shared journey fed by diverse experience ran through every aspect of the excellent programme, with opportunity to be as active or reflective as one desired. What seems to make Limmud Fest unique is the opportunity to explore an extraordinary range of voices and insights, in an open, welcoming atmosphere that gives an inspiring, colourful, tasty and uplifting picture of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st Century. It was hard not to leave there feeling invigorated and ready to face the forthcoming Days of Awe more prepared and more positive about the Jewish year ahead.

“It is very rewarding to be part of a community where generations learn and teach each other without preconceptions” said Yusmin Kilim, Co-Chair of Fest 2010. “Limmud Fest is a celebration of Jewish learning and of the creativity of the Jewish community without divisions of age, affiliation or geography.”

Ariel Kahn, is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Roehampton University and teacher at the London School of Jewish Studies.

image courtesy Chaim Bacon