February 18, 2009
Bumping Into Judaism
It’s one thing to go to a Jewish event, shmooze a little, meet the speaker, take a few notes and then write a column. But what do you do when you go to a Jewish event that lasts for 72 hours, has about 200 classes and activities, 150 speakers and 700 Jews buzzing in and out of each event until the wee hours?
How do you write about that? How do you capture hundreds of little moments of discovery and celebration in just one column? How do you summarize in a few paragraphs three days of nonstop Jewish learning that covers just about any Jewish subject?
This is the problem with LimmudLA. It’s too much of a good thing. If you’re a curious, passionate Jew, you better brace yourself for plenty of painful sacrifice. That’s what I did.
For three days last weekend at the Hilton in Costa Mesa, I experienced the agony and ecstasy of freedom of choice. It started as soon as I checked in early Friday afternoon. For the first session, I had to choose between “Black-Jewish Relations in the Obama Era,” “Yoga for Shabbat,” “Creating Your Own Jewish Journal: Storytelling, One Laugh at a Time,” “A Path Toward Creativity and Excellence: Apply Best Practices of Friday Night Live to Your Shabbat” and “Teaching Prayer: How Does One Make it Meaningful?”
A few hours later, right in the middle of an intense and joyful Friday night Carlebach service led by Yehuda Solomon of the band Moshav, I took off because I wanted to catch a little of “The Excitement and Ecstasy of Prayer Through Kabbalah” given by Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz. During this Chasidic workshop, I could hear the echoes next door of a “Traditional Egalitarian Service With Voices Only,” not to be confused with an egalitarian service in yet another room, “Traditional Egalitarian Service With Drumming,” led by Laurie Matzkin.
And if I didn’t feel like praying, I could pop into “The Unmasterable Past: Post-Communist Holocaust Memorialization” by Jeffrey Blutinger or “Digging for the Dirt: How Jewish Values Inform Hard-Hitting Journalism” by Danielle Berrin.
Later on, it got even more complicated. Right after Shabbat dinner — during which I got to shmooze with Bernie Pearl, a Jewish blues musician who played with B.B. King half a century ago — I was faced with a terrible dilemma. I had to give my own class on Sephardic traditions, but there were several other classes going on at the same time that I really didn’t want to miss: “Tensions Between Erotic and Compassionate Needs in Long-Term Relationships,” by Doreen Seidler-Feller; “Why Do We Discourage Converts?,” by Lorin and Linda Fife; “Jewish Memodrama,” by Naomi Ackerman; and “The Israel 15 Vision: Becoming One of the 15 Leading Nations,” by Gidi Grinstein.
What’s an incorrigibly curious Jew to do?
I did what I had to do. I quickly went through my “Top Ten Sephardic Traditions” and then told my understanding audience that I had to rush off to another class. I made a beeline to Grinstein’s room, intending to catch a few sound bites before heading to Seidler-Feller’s, but I never left. The notion of Israel becoming a leading nation of the world was too irresistible.
Every two hours or so, the organizers made sure I was faced with excruciating choices. How could I pick between “Interfaith Relations: Texts They Never Taught Us in Hebrew School,” “Rabbinic Martyrs in a Christian Empire: Blood, Atonement and Redemption,” “How to Read a Poem by the Young Abraham Joshua Heschel,” “The Singles Scene: Jewish Dating in the Age of J-Date,” “Iyyun Tefillah: Unlocking a Censored Prayer Text,” “Meditation: You Are Where You Feel You Are: Feeling and Allowing Your Way Back to Hashem” and “Zionism’s Continuing Balancing Act at the Beginning of the 21st Century”?
I closed my eyes and rolled the dice.
But as the sessions piled up and I had to make more tough choices and miss more great classes, a funny thing happened: I started getting interrupted. As I went from class to class, I kept meeting more and more people.
Soon the conversations themselves began to pile up. An impromptu talk about the state of Jewish education in Los Angeles with a macher from The Federation. Encounters with an Ashkenazi professor who is a world-renowned expert on the Sephardi world; with an educator in my neighborhood who gives bar and bat mitzvah lessons to autistic children; and with a filmmaker from Jerusalem who is studying and documenting the halachic dilemma of donating organs within the Orthodox community.
I met a woman studying to be a Conservative rabbi who organizes Friday night services where the prayer melodies are always changing, a physician who prescribes natural substances to balance brain chemicals, a meditation teacher who thinks Jews do way too much thinking, especially at places like Limmud, and a successful television writer from Hollywood who once saw something on a license plate that encouraged him to become Torah observant.
As I kept meeting more people and having these impromptu moments, it struck me that our lives are filled with great conversations that never happen. These are not conversations that call for a lunch or an appointment or even a phone call. They’re conversations that happen when you bump into people; the kind of conversations, perhaps, that you would see among people who live, shop and hang out in a close-knit neighborhood.
The classes at LimmudLA were great, yes, but it’s what happened between the classes that ended up moving me the most. It was the space between the notes, the movement between the events, the unplanned human encounters that made me forget all the great classes I missed.
Maybe this is the secret of Limmud’s success. It’s more than a Jewish event. It’s a Jewish neighborhood.