February 21, 2008
LimmudLA: Chance encounters, many choices
(Page 3 - Previous Page)Peter took it all in stride, and since he was told to do a "truncated" show, he used the word "truncated" as many times as he could, enunciating for effect.
But such glitches were few and easily forgiven. The weekend went remarkably smoothly for a first-time endeavor run almost entirely by volunteers. With only one paid person on LimmudLA's staff, volunteers saw to every detail, from what we ate, to what we learned, to where we slept, to all the financing.
All the presenters were volunteers, too. Not only did world-class teachers not get paid, but most of them paid their own way, from travel to conference fees.
I knew this before I came, and it didn't make sense to me.
Now, I get it.
Sunday, 8:30 a.m.
Actor Ron Rifkin on a panel with Hollywood manager Joan Hyler
It's breakfast time, and at table in the corner of Cafe LimmudLA, Ron Rifkin is sitting talking about his Jewish journey. Ron plays a brother (Saul Holden) on "Brothers and Sisters," and was Arvin Sloane, head of the bad spies, on "Alias." But today he isn't an actor; he's a Jew.
He was raised in New York by Orthodox, immigrant parents. His mother had 14 siblings. He tells us about how he sobbed as he slipped a quarter into the subway slot on Shabbat for the first time at the end of his teenage years, and about how no one helped him when, after his mother died recently at 96, he went to shul to say Kaddish and couldn't remember how to wrap the tefillin around his fingers.
He chants the first few words of his bar mitzvah portion for us -- Noah -- and discovers that two other men at the table have the same portion.
"That's the tie, that's the bond," he says. "There is a connection we have that we all understand, and no one can take that away from us."
He pulls a knitted green yarmulke out of his pocket, sent to him by a fan: "Sometimes, fans come up to me on the subway, and they say, 'You make us proud.' And I know exactly who they are and what they're saying."
Sunday, 10 a.m.
It's time for me to totally Limmud-out -- I'm going to Bibliyoga. Stretching room is scarce as the conference room fills up. But like a jigsaw puzzle, we move together through downward facing dog and a modified crow handstand. Together we use our minds and our bodies to explore the Jewish texts on breath and spirit, and we end with a Shalom mantra and the vibrating tone of the shofar. It's hokey, but I go with it. At a minimum I got in some good stretches -- without kicking anyone, or being kicked myself. That much connection I could do without.
Sunday, 11:24 a.m.
I'm wandering the hall with my schedule in hand, trying to figure out what to do next. Jewish marketing? Caring for the sick? Keeping weight off while keeping Shabbat? Poetry? Song writing? Russian Jews? War and peace in the Middle East, with one of the world's experts on the topic? A friend corals me in the hall and tells me I have to go to Peter Pitzele's Bibliodrama workshop.
This is from a friend who is not into crunchy Judaism. He likes his tradition neat.
Pitzele, a professional educator and author, asks all of us to choose an object from the Bible we want to be. A man named Aaron says he is Moses' staff. Pitzele then interviews Aaron, who gamely tells us that he was crafted from a branch on the Tree of Knowledge, blown out of the Garden of Eden and carried by Abraham until he got lost during Abraham's hurried departure from Egypt after that whole wife/sister Sarah episode. He was found by Bedouins and eventually landed in the hand of Moses and helped usher the Jews from bondage.
Is any of this factual? No. Is it engagingly constructed modern-day personal midrash that requires both imaginer and listener to jump into the story as never before? Remarkably so.
"Once you are in first person within the Bible, you become invested in it and deeply connected to it," Pitzele tells us.
Sunday, 12:48 p.m.
I'm so pumped I feel like I've had six cups of coffee. But I've only had two cups -- both decaf.
I grab my lunch -- Limmud is not about the food -- and get ready for an afternoon of high intellect. Arna Poupko Fisher, a closet comedienne who also teaches Bible and Law at the University of Cincinnati, challenges us to really consider what are -- if there are -- non-negotiable Jewish beliefs. Mitchell Silver -- who Fischer finds out midway through is a philosophy professor -- brings thoroughly thought-out ideas to the discussion. Since all the presenters are also participants, you never know which expert is sitting next to you in a session or at the dinner table.
Next I cut out early from "12 Steps + 10 Commandments = 1 Soul" for a quick brain rest and then opt for a presentation on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Greg Bearman, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory imaging expert, figured out how to use spectroscopic imaging technology to recover more of the seemingly illegible ancient script than had ever been seen before. Bearman and his wife, Sheila Spiro, used their own time and money to research and publish the results, finally getting the attention of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
With the Jewish past now in sharp relief, I drop into a session to contemplate the Jewish future, for 15 minutes, and then jump into the present as I meet up with my kids, who have taken a swimming break with dad. The children's programming hasn't been quite as stimulating as the adults', but my kids are having a great time. They participated in some kid-oriented sessions and have reaped the bounty of the art room, and will bring home candlesticks, a challah cover, a Havdalah spice box and various painted wooden stars, pomegranates and hamsas (the Sephardic hand symbol for good luck).