This one-day Limmud, the first in the South West, took place in central Bristol. Our programme covered topics of national and international Jewish interest. Our session programmers enjoyed researching and inviting presenters of wide-ranging and diverse topics. Over 30 agreed to take part.
You’ll also find more information relating to sessions and their presenters on our Facebook page.
Below are three personal accounts of the day’s sessions, written for the Summer Issue of Alonim, the synagogue magasine of Bristol & West Progressive Jewish Congregation, based in Bannerman Road, Easton, Bristol.
On 10th June more than 240 people gathered for a day’s celebration of Jewish culture. Limmud has now been running for more than 35 years, primarily as an event over the Christmas holidays lasting several days. It’s been so successful that the model has been copied overseas, and in shorter events around the UK. For anyone who has been asleep for the last few months, a group of Jewish people from Bristol created a programme that managed to attract enthusiasts from all over the south west.
It took place in the Cathedral School, just down the steps from the cathedral. Arriving around 10am, the committee appeared even to have achieved the extraordinary feat of getting the cathedral bells rung to herald this symbolic act of ecumenism. In his talk on the history of Jews in Bristol Alex Schlesinger pointed out the irony – that we were meeting in the shadow of the former St Augustine`s Abbey, where the deed chest of the medieval Bristol Jewry was kept under lock and key. Equally ironic that the Jews have returned while the abbey itself was suppressed in the sixteenth century, unlikely ever to return.
The programme reflected the breadth of Jewish culture. Six parallel sessions containing a total of thirty talks. There was a theme of Jewish history with talks on what archaeology can (or cannot) confirm of biblical history; how everyday Jewish life over the centuries is reflected in the Ashmolean museum’s artefacts; Jews’ involvement in the Atlantic slave trade; one talk on the holocaust as well as Alex’s account of our local history. Jewish music appeared with Alan Schiller’s personal history, Mark Solomon teaching different ways to sing kaddish, an account of Jewish influence on Broadway musicals (both with audience participation), together with two talks about the problems of bringing plays and musicals to the stage, plus a wonderful musical performance on double bass and oud. There was Jewish literature (US literature after Philip Roth) and art (Marc Chagall and David Bomberg). Jewish thought appeared in a talk on Philo of Alexandria and an account by Jonathan Wittenberg of an extraordinary figure, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, who continued to teach and write his thoughts while confined in the Warsaw ghetto. Then there was a range dealing with contemporary issues: our responses to food (the growth of veganism) and the environment (a talk from Limmud’s only begetter, Clive Lawton); the plight of Jews still living in Ethiopia; and our response to the current refugee crisis, put into context by another talk on the contribution that refugees from Nazi Europe have made to British culture. There were also four different explorations of the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, balanced by two talks showing that there is more in common between Jews and Muslims than division between them, and how in Bristol the two communities have managed to work together.
For me one theme that resonated through several talks was set by Madge Dresser’s account of the Atlantic slave trade. Jewish involvement, though minor in the overall traffic, was significant. It came out of Jewish literacy, mobility, and the contacts with other Jews across continents. In other words the familiar tale of Jews occupying a space in between other more established groups, enabling them to spot and exploit opportunities, explore and synthesise different disciplines and styles. So, for instance, Gershwin’s musical style is a unique combination of jazz and classical styles. My interpretation of the talk on David Bomberg was that his failure to attract a following meant he was never pigeon holed into one style and was able to explore many of the different genres around him, while Chagall’s own very personal style also emerged from him drawing on a variety of influences and not being confined to one particular school. There was a talk on radical Jewish women, whose contributions to thought and history is inseparable from their status as outcasts. Izzy Posen’s moving account of his journey from Charedi community in Stamford Hill to the secular world of Bristol University (itself an expression of cultural mobility, albeit hard won) included the thought that the secular world could learn from the yeshiva’s habit of chavruta study. Gene Feder & I pointed out how, as diaspora Jews we are freer to move between and within Israel and Palestine then either Israeli Jews or Palestinian Arabs.
The feedback, not surprisingly, was warmly positive, with many commenting on the range, and on the frustration of only being able to attend one out of every six sessions. People found it inspirational and commented on the welcoming atmosphere. The committee received well deserved praise on the superb organisation, the catering, and even the weather. Ominously there were also suggestions about what the participants would want to be included next time. (Next time?) Everyone involved: committee first, but also volunteers, security staff, lunch suppliers and all the presenters deserve our warm thanks and praise; and perhaps the committee has earned a short rest. Finally, it was a great example of all the Jewish groups in Bristol working together.
With thanks to Yoav Ben Shlomo, Viviane Bowell, Sheila Brill, Linda Hurst, Wendy Kingdom, and Alex Schlesinger, all of whom contributed to this article.
The highlights of Bristol Limmud for me were Kurt Lampe’s session on the Greek-Jewish intellectual of Alexandria, and the sessions on Marc Chagall, David Bomberg and Philip Roth.
Philo flourished in the first decades of the first millennium. He spoke and wrote Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew. Greek was the lingua franca of hundreds of thousands of Alexandrian Jews. Hellenism was not the threat to Jewish life portrayed by historians of the revolts against the Greek-Syrian Seleucid dynasty in ancient Palestine. Philo tried to assimilate Hebrew theology as represented in the Torah into Platonic philosophy. So in the creation in the first verses of Genesis in Philo’s re-interpretation of “chaos and void” (“tohu v’bohu”) is a background assumption that a spiritual world of ideal forms exists either in the human mind or in reality or in both – a state argued for in a number of Plato’s dialogues. Greek ontology – the study of Being – is structured much like the mind of God in Maimonides, a mind “read” by the great Sephardi rabbi in terms which preclude anthropomorphising God.
It is ironic that in post-communist Belarus, in Vitebsk, Marc Chagall’s home city, his family house has been reconstructed and his paintings in the national museum, with all their impressionist, magical shtetl imagery, so much at odds with socialist realism, are the main attraction for tourists.
David Bomberg’s impressionistic paintings of life in the East End of London were born in social conditions of poverty and now fetch huge prices in the commercialised market of art investment.
Who will succeed Philip Roth as the most influential writer interpreting Jewish-American life? A number of Jewish women novelists have emerged who careers are burgeoning and at last we don’t have to blush when we mention to those who have never read it what exactly Portnoy’s ‘complaint” really was.
I started my day by attending “Faith beyond patriarchy” led by our own progressive Rabbi, Monique Mayer, and Shereen Williams, a Muslim local government worker and community activist based in South Wales and originally from Singapore.
During the session, both women spoke about their respective upbringings, inspirations and sometimes of their struggles overcoming patriarchal traditions within faith. It amazes me that in 2018, on the centenary of voting rights for women, there are still people who can’t accept women as equals and Rabbi Monique spoke of her own experiences of encountering people who still question the validity of her position as a Rabbi – based solely on gender.
Both Shereen and Rabbi Monique cited strong-willed, female family members as important role models in giving them the determination to follow their aspirations.
The next session, “The story of the Jews of Bristol and Bath” was a real highlight for me, as a keen amateur genealogist and local historian.
Alex Schlesinger, who gave the talk, took us on almost a thousand year’s worth of local Jewish history in just under an hour – no mean feat!
Alex took us back to 1142 when Jews were encouraged by King Stephen to come to England (for financial money-lending purposes) and established of a Jewish quarter in Wine Street and the Jewry (what is now known as Nelson Street). The medieval Jews of Bristol had a synagogue in the cellar of St Stephen’s church – the only case of a synagogue and a church operating within the same building in Europe.
We learnt that there is a medieval Jewish cemetery buried underneath the foundations of the QEH school in Clifton and that Jacob’s Well in Hotwells is Europe’s oldest known Mikveh.
After taking in a thousand year’s worth of history, it was time for lunch and browse of the many stalls in the foyer. From Davar promoting their many impressive cultural events in Bristol to a fantastic Waterstones stall selling a large selection of Jewish interest books, there was lots to interest almost everyone.
After lunch, my third session was “Jews and the Atlantic Slavery – beyond the polemics” by Dr Madge Dresser.
This was another particularly interesting session for me, as many assertions about Jews controlling the Atlantic slave trade form the basis of many antisemitic canards on the internet and social media so therefore it’s important to look at the facts and latest academic research on the role Jews played in the matter.
Dr Madge Dresser gave a compelling seminar, focusing on the facts and examining antisemitic discourse around the matter. Out of all the sessions I attended at Limmud, this was probably the most though provoking and unequivocally the seminar that evoked the most discussion.
After a session discussing an intense and upsetting period of history, the next session “The Jewish birth of the Broadway musical” provided a much-needed hour of fun.
The quote from the Spamalot song “You Won’t Survive on Broadway If You Don’t Have Any Jews” seems to have an element of truth in it, or so it would appear, after attending Robert Hurst’s fabulous talk on the contribution and importance of Jewish composers in the 20th Century.
Robert took us on a musical carpet ride, from the arrival of Jewish immigrants in the United States at the turn of the century, embracing vaudeville and musical theatre and enriching it with their own roots in Yiddish theatre, to the amazing truth that a Jew, Irving Berlin, wrote one of the most well-loved Christmas songs – “White Christmas” and George Gershwin’s famous “Rhapsody in Blue” containing an unmistakably Klezmer style clarinet.
The highlight of this session was the whole room unexpectedly singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, and Robert posing the question – “without music, would we even be Jewish?”
My fifth and final session of the day was “The Jewish Journey: 4000 years in 22 objects” by author and journalist, Rebecca Abrams.
Rebecca began the session by putting to us the notion that Anglo-Jews are masters of assimilation and “blending in” and highlighted the recent “Enough is Enough” antisemitism protests in London as going against the grain of this.
Her talk then showcased 6 of the 22 objects from her recent book “The Jewish Journey” that are on display at the Ashmolean in Oxford.
All these objects had one thing in common, they weren’t obviously Jewish!
What followed was a fascinating insight into the less obvious of Jewish history in one hour.
That completed my day at Bristol’s first Limmud, there were so many seminars I wanted to see that it became hard to narrow it down. I left the event feeling enriched and hungry for more, so please Limmud come back to Bristol in 2019!