At Limmud NY, Too Much Of A Good Thing


Last week, after years of contemplating it but being stymied by various logistical challenges, I finally made it, with my two daughters in tow, to Limmud NY.

On the ride there Friday, as our bus ascended the curving mountain road to the Catskills hotel where this Jewish learning festival/conference would be held, 3-year-old Sophie sent me into a fit of soul-searching that would throw me off for the entire weekend.

A conversation about which of her friends might be persuaded to join us if we returned to Limmud next year led to a discussion of who is and is not Jewish. Her friend Tessa? Yes. Chloe? No. The three of us? Yes. Dad? No.

“But what’s Jewish?” Sophie demanded. “And WHY are we Jewish?”

To my great embarrassment, despite years of Hebrew study, a smattering of Judaism classes and more than a decade working in Jewish journalism, all I could think to say was, “Because we ARE Jewish,” which is even more pathetic than “Because I said so!”

Perhaps, I thought, Limmud will provide the answer to that question.

Admittedly, this was a tall order for a four-day, volunteer-run event. But having heard countless glowing testimonials from happy “Limmudnyks” — and having invested a not insignificant amount of mine and my employer’s money in order to get there — I was, unfairly to be sure, expecting an all-absorbing, intellectually stimulating, spiritually meaningful, life-changing experience for the entire family (minus my husband, who was devoting the weekend to catching up on work). My children, neither of whom are enrolled in any formal Jewish educational program yet, would get a chance to be immersed in a Jewish environment. We’d leave Jewishly literate, and with newfound friends for life.
Not surprisingly, I left feeling a little disappointed.

It wasn’t that we had a bad time. Indeed, as I look at the conference photos on Facebook I even feel a wave of nostalgia. The other participants were friendly and unpretentious, the food good, I heard some thoughtful speakers and made a few professional contacts. I even overcame stage fright in order to lead a small, but engaging, discussion on intermarriage. My girls were basically happy, despite the usual bouts of whining and bickering, and they seemed to pick up a few morsels of Yiddishkeit.

At “Camp Limmud,” 6-year-old Ellie happily made a tzedakah box, signed up for the Jewish National Fund birthday club and engaged in a philosophical discussion about whether it is ever acceptable to lie. Sophie came home singing “Shabbat Shalom, Hey” and expressing newfound interest in our plush Torah, even if, I suspect, the Limmud memories that will be most lasting for her were the Froot Loops at breakfast, our nightly visits to the hotel ice machine and our multiple hotel-room viewings of an American Girl DVD.

So what’s to complain about, other than Limmud not meeting my outrageously high expectations? After all, how could I expect a few days in the Catskills to resolve all my spiritual ambivalence or compensate for the fact that I have yet to acquire a solid Jewish education?

I think my main problem with Limmud was that its very nature — a large event that prides itself on bringing together a wide variety of programming and a large, diverse (albeit overwhelmingly Jewish) roster of participants  — was a poor fit for my anxiety-prone, indecisive, deadline-needing personality.
When confronted with lots of options and very little structure, I tend to second-guess every choice I make. So instead of finding the selection of several 90-minute sessions empowering or exciting, as the happy people around me clearly did, I found myself sitting restlessly in one place, unable to pay attention and obsessively wondering whether this particular session was the best use of my time. Perhaps I’d learn more in another class or see more people I knew there? Should I stay a few minutes longer? Should I pop my head into another room?

No matter which session I chose, I’d wonder if, given the many holes in my basic Jewish knowledge, I could even absorb or retain anything meaningful in an hour and a half. What I needed, I realized, was not a sampling of various wholly disconnected aspects of history, Talmud and Bible or exposure to excerpts of text whose contexts I didn’t know, but a comprehensive curriculum.

With 700 participants and over 30 sessions, this Limmud was actually smaller than previous ones due to budget cuts necessitated by the Madoff-caused demise of the Picower Foundation, a major Limmud NY funder. Nonetheless, I found myself yearning for something more intimate, or even some sort of vehicle for making the conference feel smaller — an assigned group of people to eat meals with, a track for participants who share a common interest, something.

Ironically, while Limmud aims to foster community and conversation, and while I am normally fairly extroverted, I found myself feeling surprisingly lonely, shy and at loss for words there. What I needed, instead of encountering new people every few hours and sometimes, by chance, bumping into the man I’d chatted with at lunch or the woman whose daughter shared Goldfish crackers with my daughter on the bus, was a cohort of classmates. As much as I admired how my fellow Limmudnyks represented a diversity of observance levels, neighborhoods and ages, the diversity (and the fact that I was frequently distracted by my children) actually made it difficult for me to sustain more than small talk with most of the people present. I found myself yearning for a group of people who shared more with me than a common Jewish heritage: I wanted other intermarried folks, other writers, other people from Queens, other parents of small children — even other people who had been to more than one or two of the same sessions I had.

One of Limmud’s selling points is that each participant constructs his or her own experience, so that no two people do exactly the same things there. Yet I found myself wishing for a core curriculum and for some sort of guarantee that the same people I saw in the morning would be in the same place as me in the afternoon and evening.

Had I been one of the many people who devote hours volunteering to help plan and run Limmud, I might have gotten a deeper connection and chance to bond with other participants. But as a newbie already overwhelmed with work and parenting, I had shied away from such a commitment.
At a panel on “Jewish Law: Where We Have Been and Where We Are Going,” it occurred to me that the challenge of Limmud is, in some ways, the problem of modern, liberal Judaism (and modern life, in general). Too individualized, too much choice.

As Rabbi Ethan Tucker, one of the panelists and the rosh yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, said, more than 150 years after emancipation from European ghettoes, the Jewish world is still struggling to adapt to its role as a purely voluntary endeavor. No one has to participate, no one has to do anything and we are all free to choose whether and how to be Jewish. There is no enforcement mechanism; even God, assuming one believes in him, generally takes a hands-off approach to our day-to-day lives.

Observing halacha, or Jewish law, limits those choices quite a bit, and I envy observant Jews, in no small part because their life has a structure, meaning and unwavering sense of purpose that mine sometimes seems to lack. Nonetheless, as Rabbi Tucker noted, even observant Jews are confronted with an array of choices about which rabbi, which tradition, which interpretation, which standard of kashrut, to follow — decisions that would once have been dictated by our family or the place in which we lived. Rabbi Tucker told of a woman who recently inherited her Orthodox rabbi grandfather’s dishes yet was unsure whether or not the grandfather’s kashrut standards had been high enough, or if she needed to re-kasher them. Such a question would have been unheard of at one titme, Rabbi Tucker said, as the observance of a grandparent would have been automatically deferred to.

Of course the irony of all this choice is that, as overwhelming as it can be, it’s vastly preferable to life in a ghetto or shtetl. For me to narrow my options to the bounds of halacha, when I have spent my whole life outside them and when I don’t, at this point, find them compelling other than in a nostalgic, this-is-what-my-ancestors-did kind of way, would feel somehow random and artificial. Not to mention impossible, since my family, particularly my lapsed Catholic husband who is supportive of my Jewish explorations but not interested in joining in all of them, would not be happy making such a radical lifestyle shift. Yet I do feel a pull to Judaism nonetheless, a compulsion to learn more and be more intensively engaged.

Back from the conference, I’m not sure what’s next for my family, what choices we will make in the giant Limmud that is life. But I do know that I need to find a better answer for Sophie.

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