Weather Fails to Dampen the Spirits at Limmud Fest 2012

photo ©2012 Jonathan Hunter

by Daniel Duberstein

In its beautiful new location in the heart of the Kent countryside at the foot of the North Downs, this year’s Limmud Fest saw a fair amount of rain, some gorgeous sunshine and an extraordinary level of joyfulness and community spirit. A number of high profile, established summer festivals were cancelled across the UK over the past three months and others scrambled to sell tickets at half price to combat flagging sales. The combination of record-breaking rainfall and the Olympics are cited by most festival organizers as being the reasons why overall festival ticket sales were at their lowest for over a decade.

Not so Limmud Fest. Billed by Limmud as “the hottest festival in the British Jewish calendar”, the volunteer-run festival attracted close to 600 participants for four days of non-stop Jewish learning and culture, despite this being the wettest British summer in over 100 years. The site, based in the appropriately named “Pilgrims’ Way” area in South East England, was home to over 150 sessions of learning, the majority of which took place outdoors or under canvas; a true celebration of Jewish community without walls and a chance to embrace the Hebrew month of Ellul in the tradition of reflection and learning for which it is known. Speaking after the event on the UK’s most popular morning radio show on BBC Radio 2, Rabbi Pete Tobias described to 8 million listeners the scenes of hundreds of people camping in tents discussing Jewish ideas and learning Torah as “like something from the bible” and as “something that would have made Hillel proud”.

photo ©2012 Jonathan Hunter

The volunteer programming team created a packed programme filled with fascinating contrasts between sessions and presenters of very different backgrounds and styles, so Fest-goers could complement traditional text study sessions and challenging debates with dance, yoga and creative writing workshops. As always, music was a real strength, with highlights including barnstorming Main Stage sets by Coolooloosh – one of Israel’s most internationally popular bands, whose Limmud Fest gigs were the first on their latest European tour – and one of Israel’s all time leading female vocalists, Mika Karni. Karni and her unique musical ensemble of Israeli Moroccan, Yemenite and Ethiopian musicians and singers, delighted the Limmud Fest audience with their haunting musical version of the world’s most beautiful love songs, the biblical Shir Ha’Shirim, Song of Songs. Naomi Less, the self-styled “Jewish chick rocker” from the States performed live and also ran workshops for children, teens and adults, encouraging them to explore their Jewish identity and express themselves through music. A memorable musical havdallah under the stars led by Fest ‘super group’ of different performers was accompanied by fire-swingers and fire-jugglers which helped sum up the Limmud Fest spirit. The juxtaposition between Jewish learning and Jewish music was reflected throughout the programme, such as Israeli educator’s well attended session exploring “spiritual thought relevant to the month of Elul, using Bob Dylan’s lyrics” and traditional Jewish text. “We’re thrilled that we achieved a key aim of our team,” explained Limmud fest Co-Chair Paul Silk – a professional massage therapist, acupuncturist and community worker – “which was simply to put the ‘fest’ into everyone’s Limmud Fest experience. It’s about taking the best of the Limmud ideal and putting it into a festival context in the middle of the English countryside”.

photo ©2012 Jonathan Hunter

A contingent of expert presenters from across the UK and overseas explored fascinating links between Jews and a range of subjects including gender, food, environmentalism, sexuality, and tikkun olam, using traditional textual and contemporary sources. Artist and educator Jacqueline Nicholls of LSJS proved extremely popular, using her art to teach about some of the “wives, sisters, mothers, daughters, prostitutes and maids who have no names and yet have an elusive haunting presence in the Talmudic texts”. In true Limmud style, Nicholls’ contributions to the Fest programme also included study sessions exploring the different ways clothing is used as a vehicle for meaning and identity within Jewish tradition and literature – as demonstrated in her internationally exhibited “Kittel Collection” which opens in New York next week – and the equally popular “Rebbetzins’ Silent Disco” which saw over 400 Fest-goers dancing under the stars until the early hours of the morning. First timer Oshrat Mesala, an Israeli singer, summed up her experience in four words: “Exhausting, exciting, engaging and inspiring!”

The relationship between Torah and the environment was treated both intellectually and experientially, with guided walks from Tzedek founder and Chair Steve Miller and Israeli educator and activist Noam Dolgin of the Green Zionist Alliance; hand-on workshops studying, cooking and eating foods from the bible with Israeli baker and educator Nissimmi Naim Naor; and an “interfaith exploration of ecology in the Abrahamic faiths” led by Rabbi Natan Levy, along with Harfiyah Haleem of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences and David Shreeve, Environmental Adviser to the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. Participants could move effortlessly from soul food to real food and back again, with plenty of more light-hearted and practical opportunities to make kosher organic wine and beer, learn how to build a succah from recycled scrap, or just relax in the sunshine and meet new people from all corners of the Jewish community, including from places as diverse as Mexico, Budapest, Jerusalem, Paris, Los Angeles and Transylvania.

“Limmud Fest is a celebration of Jewish learning and of the creativity of the Jewish community without the usual divisions of age, affiliation or geography.” said Avra Stein, Co-Chair of Limmud Fest 2012. “It’s hugely rewarding to be part of, and help build, a community where people learn and teach each other without preconceptions”.

The sense of a community on a shared journey fed by diverse experience ran through every aspect of the 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, positive 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.

Daniel Duberstein was a first-time Limmud Fest participant.