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[caption id=“attachment_12967” align=“alignright” width=“346”] the Gefilteria sampler[/caption]
by Alyssa Goldstein
This past weekend, I went to the Taste of Limmud event at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I went to school in Park Slope from kindergarten through 12th grade, and Beth Elohim even hosted my high school graduation — not because I went to a Jewish school, but because it is one of the largest and most prominent buildings in the neighborhood. I was definitely familiar with the venue, but only passingly familiar with Limmud — an organization that is focused on Jewish learning, culture, diversity and community service.
I arrived at the synagogue on time (the familiar neighborhood meant none of my usual getting lost, thankfully). Beth Elohim is currently a massive staging ground for Hurricane Sandy relief, and I made a promise to myself to return there and volunteer later in the week. I was the first one there, so I watched the Gefilteria set up their spread. The Gefilteria (which I was also just learning about for the first time) seeks to rescue the “robust, colorful, fresh flavors of Ashkenazi cuisine” from the sad, dusty jars to which it has often been relegated. Not only was there gefilte fish (which as a vegetarian, I declined to try), but also borscht, knishes, carrot and beet horseradish, pickles and sauerkraut. For someone with frequent, fierce knish cravings who prefers pickles to ice cream any day, this event was off to a good start.
There were people of all different ages at the event, though I think I may have been the only young person there not previously involved in Limmud. It was a bit difficult to get a sense of what these people were all about from the short time I spent with them, but they seemed to be mostly Ashkenazi and on the less-observant end of the spectrum. Though we didn’t talk about U.S. politics, I would have been surprised if there were any Romney supporters in attendance. A woman in the informal discussion on Jewish stereotypes that I attended later in the day mentioned that she had lived in Israel and was currently a fundraiser for Ben Gurion University. She spoke negatively about the right-wing efforts to shut down the University’s political studies department, and everyone else seemed to agree with her.
As for what Limmud hopes to accomplish, their website description of their core objective of “volunteerism” states: “To foster a strong volunteer corps who, through planning and attending our annual event, experience the power of volunteerism in building their Jewish identity and community.” I would expect “volunteerism” to apply to “helping the needy,” perhaps, but not to helping plan the Limmud conference. It’s really not that unusual that people who belong to an organization like Limmud would dedicate some of their time to it — making it seem as if the people who are volunteering for Limmud are actually the ones being helped by it seems to be a strange reversal.
After I ate and chatted for a while with a woman who, it turned out, lived a few blocks from me in Midwood (so nice to talk with someone else who can relate to hearing a blaring siren every week to mark the arrival of shabbat), we all moved into an echoey stairwell for Joey Weisenberg’s Spontaneous Jewish Choir. As a socially awkward duckling, I can be somewhat shy about singing in public with a lot of strangers, but this quickly turned into my favorite part of the day. Weisenberg started singing a simple nigun (wordless melody), which the rest of us quickly caught on to. True to its name, it was indeed spontaneous, and the large marble stairwell made it sound as if were were a choir in a cathedral (a very Jewish cathedral). I’m not sure how long we sang this one nigun — sometimes loud and sometimes softly, sometimes stomping and clapping and sometimes just sitting — perhaps 45 minutes, maybe longer. Some of the other participants got really into it, though whether they experienced it as a profound form of prayer or a deep connection to music, or some combination, I do not know.
Why did I like it so much, besides the fact that singing is a nice thing to do? As much as I love participating in Jewish communal experiences, I’m a bit on-edge about them because I fall outside of the Jewish-American “mainstream” in a number of ways. I’m an atheist, and while I don’t particularly mind hearing other people talk about god, it’s just not my thing. I’m an anti-Zionist, and there’s nothing like hearing some “as Jews we must stand with Israel” rhetoric to spoil my nice Jewish day. My mother isn’t Jewish. I’m in a mixed relationship. All of these things can (and have) lead to uncomfortable and even hostile encounters with other Jews. Forty-five minutes of singing a nigun is 45 minutes I don’t have to worry about it.
After the singing, we headed to the workshops. There were four to choose from: one on the kabbalistic concept of olam katan and the body as a landscape in photography, another on the Sh’ma, a third on Jewish Montessori education and a fourth on how to decide where to donate money after Hurricane Sandy. I had almost no prior familiarity with any of these topics, but I gravitated towards the olam katan workshop because my senior thesis research at Bard had dealt with the concept of the individual body as a microcosm of the Jewish/Israeli nation. The workshop’s facilitator aimed to cover a huge amount of material in a short time, and as a result, we had only ten minutes to look at and discuss the work of four photographers after we had read through all the quotes in the two-page handout. This is not to say that the material wasn’t interesting — I hadn’t known that the concept of the body as landscape or as a smaller version of the universe was expressed in Jewish and kabbalistic thought, and I would have liked to talk about it more.
We came back together after the workshops for “open space Jewish learning,” which was cryptically described on the program as “creating a spontaneous Jewish experience from scratch.” It turns out that this meant that anyone who wanted to could suggest a discussion topic, and then we would break off into small groups according to our choice of topic. I briefly and masochistically considered going to the Israeli and American elections discussion group, but I ultimately decided to avoid unnecessary possible unpleasantness and go to the Jewish stereotypes discussion instead. The discussion was so informal that we ended up talking for only a very short time about Jewish stereotypes, and ended up just chatting instead. This was fine with me too — and overall I was very impressed with how friendly everyone was. Most people at the event had been involved with Limmud for a while and already knew each other, but still made a point to start conversations with me when they saw me standing around awkwardly.
As I always do with any Jewish organization I encounter, I found myself comparing Limmud to Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist youth movement that earned my intense devotion during my teenage years. I think that part of the intensity of that devotion was due to the overall intensity of the experience: I felt a great sense of urgency to teach and learn the material that would never be covered in our schools, to build strong and cohesive kvutzot (small age groups), to maintain a socialist community in a capitalist world and ultimately to radically change that world. At Limmud, by contrast, we ate nice food, sang a nice melody, had some nice discussions — and then I went home. If you’re wondering why this seems strange to me, keep in mind that for six formative years, Hashomer was the only way I had anything to do with Judaism outside of my family. When I first got involved with the Jewish Students Organization at Bard, I didn’t know how I felt about the fact that I could do Jewish stuff that wasn’t wrapped up in radical politics of social change. Actually, I still don’t know how I feel about that. Of course, Limmud and Hashomer are obviously very different kinds of Jewish organizations. I had a nice Jewish day with Limmud, but perhaps the most important thing I learned was how much I miss the radical Judaism where you don’t just go home when the day ends.