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Limmud – an event for all seasons

A presenter at Limmud last weekend, Gidi Grinstein – president of Israel’s respected leadership think-tank, the Reut Institute – called Jews the “ever-dying people”. Jews possessed, he said, a sophisticated “architecture” of adaptability which ensured that if one part dies – as has happened many times in history through expulsion, persecution or otherwise – other parts adapt and thrive.

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Voices

GEOFF SIFRIN

Anyone attending the Limmud three-day sleep-over conference last weekend, would attest to how vigorously South African Jewry and world Jewry was thriving – 70 years after a-third of world Jewry died in the Holocaust.

Limmud – held at the Indaba Hotel near Johannesburg – has grown in stature since the first one in 2007 and secured a firm space in SA Jewry, attracting a broad spectrum from mainstream to fringe.

Kudos go to the organisers for ensuring an atmosphere in which all could feel comfortable, regardless of degree of religious observance, Orthodox or otherwise. Shabbat, for example, was fully observed in public spaces with all necessary decorum – although obviously in private people could do as they wished – and all food provided was kosher and certified by the Johannesburg Beth Din.

This approach paid off in the range of participants, which included a significant number of kippah-wearing men and their families.

This is in contrast to the perception of the first Limmud as a lightweight “lefty” happening. Limmud has “arrived” and become sufficiently mainstream for almost anybody to attend, while continuing to attract people from outside the mainstream looking for a Jewish home to feel comfortable in.

That first Limmud evoked blatant hostility from the mainstream Orthodox establishment, which saw it as a Reform function white-anting the pillars of serious Judaism. Sinai Indaba was subsequently started, representing the more conservative side of the Jewish world. Orthodox rabbis were urged not to attend Limmud.

It has become clear, though, that with its huge diversity of topics which anyone can cherry-pick, Limmud does not pose a threat to more conservative Judaism. Indeed, Sinai Indaba and Limmud have become fertile counterpoints to each other, with many people attending both.

The two models are different. Sinai Indaba has taken the route of mainly hosting Jewish high-flyers – such as former Chief Rabbi of the UK Lord Jonathan Sacks – with wide popular appeal, who essentially deliver a high-powered talk to a huge audience.

This model has successfully made Sinai Indaba a much-anticipated annual occasion.

Limmud, on the other hand, is more interactive and grassroots, organised and run by volunteers. It includes some high-flyers among its presenters – for example Israeli Supreme Court judge Elyakim Rubinstein this year – but also provides sessions by ordinary people with special interests and knowledge in a wide range of Jewish-related fields.

As some speakers said, we live in an era of confusion and flux. Old accepted  norms are being challenged – along the lines of Grinstein’s model – including the well-worn Jewish establishment.

New green shoots arise – like the fast-growing Limmud movement worldwide – helping Jews find new ways of expressing their Jewishness. One strength of Limmud is its continuing ability also to appeal to many people who are alienated or not part of the mainstream.

Still evident at Limmud is the absence of Orthodox rabbis, although their congregants are well represented. Will there come a time when Orthodox rabbis feel free to embrace Limmud? The new chief rabbi of the UK – Cape Town-born Ephraim Mirvis – made a point of showing his face at Limmud in the UK . Jonathan Sacks did not attend Limmud, but nor did he discourage others from doing so – indeed, his daughter was one of the stars at an early one in Johannesburg.

For a relatively small community of some 70 000 souls, SA Jewry is remarkable in being able to host three major, successful annual Jewish occasions – the Jewish Achiever Awards, Sinai Indaba and Limmud. Hopefully, this vibrant spirit will continue growing, to match the fascinating country we live in.

 

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Bev Goldman

    Sep 4, 2014 at 6:51 am

    ‘This Limmud was the first time my husband and I stayed for the entire duration, and we have the highest praise for the organisers.  It was a stimulating, energising and very inspiring weekend; and we were extremely impressed by, as Geoff writes, the \”significant number of kippah-wearing men and their families\” who enjoyed the traditional Shabbat dinner, the choice of Shabbat services, the moving and beautiful Havdalah service and the non-stop food, food and food available almost 24 hours a day. 

    Speakers covered a range of topics, enabling everyone there to find his or her own niche of interest.  The excellent ones spoke more than once and there were scrabbles for seats in their rooms; the good ones spoke only once but also attracted good audiences.  Questions from the floor were discerning and relevant; and answers generally satisfactory.  One of my highlights was the Youth Session I attended – I was astounded and delighted with the standard of the young speakers, their passion and their commitment to Judaism, to their community and to their principles.  There’s excellent hope for this community if that’s the quality of our future leaders.  Kol Hakavod to all!’

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Voices

Don’t vote, don’t complain

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The conversation would go something along these lines. “Mrs Feldman,” they would say, on seeing my late grandmother, “You are looking too wonderful!” A pregnant pause would follow as she contemplated the horror of what had been said. “Really?” she would finally answer, lips pursed, eyes narrowed, “You should only know how terrible I feel.”

And then, just to prove her point. Or to make them suffer, she would tell them. Complaint by complaint. Ailment by ailment, punctuated with a detailed description of her matching medication. At a family function, my grandmother would find desserts “too sweet” and the band too loud. She was never happy with where she had been seated, and there was always someone who didn’t greet her appropriately.

She wouldn’t have it any other way. Because complaining made her happy.

Whereas our generation might not complain about the same things, we’re hardly different. Social media is a complainer’s dream, where at a whim and at any time, we have the ability to slate, moan, and denigrate anything or anyone we choose. The “Hello Peters”, Google Reviews, and Facebook groups all provide fertile environments for anyone having a bad experience or simply a bad day. Because like it or not, complaining makes us happy.

It does, however, have its limits. And there are conditions attached to our ability and right to complain. We might, for instance, not be happy with the state of our roads, or the water pipes or electricity, but we forfeit the right to complain about them if we choose not to vote in the forthcoming municipal elections. No one will stop us, and maybe no one will even know, but electing not to participate in the choosing of representatives for our neighbourhoods and cities renders our complaining voices silent on a moral level.

The refrain of, “There’s no one to vote for” isn’t only inaccurate, it’s also lazy. The options might not be perfect, but each presents an opportunity for change and improvement.

The decision not to vote is a vote for the status quo. Which means that it’s affirmation that things are just as they should be. It means that the roads are pristine, that our water sparkles and is reliable, and that our lights switch on with the predictability and consistency of high school Charidy callers. It means that everything is just as it should be. Because, why else would anyone choose not to choose?

In conversations with the leaders of the Democratic Alliance, Action SA, and the African Christian Democratic Party, each told me the same thing: this election is all about service delivery. It’s about selecting the party and person who has the highest chance of getting the job done.

It might be true that there’s no perfect party and no perfect candidate, but then it might be worth choosing the one that’s the least imperfect of them all. Failure to do that will result the loss of the right to complain about all the things we love to complain about.

Which would make our grandmothers very unhappy.

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Voices

Making us count in the conversation

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Let me introduce myself. My name is Karen Milner, and I’m the newly elected chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). I look forward to engaging with all of you through this column, and welcome any feedback, comments, and input.

It’s my pleasure to start my tenure by announcing the results of the elections of the SAJBD national positions:

Shaun Zagnoev – national president

Mary Kluk – national vice-president

Zev Krengel – national vice-president

David Kuming – national treasurer

Marc Pozniak – national vice-chairperson (Gauteng)

Rael Kaimowitz – national vice-chairperson (Western Cape)

Susan Abro – national vice-chairperson (KZN)

Our elections took place last Sunday, 17 October, as part of the SAJBD’s biennial national conference, and it’s an amazing privilege for us to begin our term of office on the back of such an inspiring and thought-provoking event. The Board’s national conferences are typically a hybrid of past, present, and future, where reflecting on the events of the previous two years goes hand in hand with assessing current realities and looking to the potential challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. This conference was no exception, addressing issues of real substance while also showcasing what the Board has done on behalf of its constituency.

We were honoured to have an exceptional panel, comprising Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, Advocate Wim Trengove, and Eskom Chief Executive Andre de Ruyter to address the critical challenges facing our country – the economy, the rule of law, and electricity. None of the speakers attempted to airbrush the sobering reality of the difficulties ahead, but they also relayed a message of genuine hope. This message was reinforced as we learned about the remarkable work done by the recipients of our communal leadership awards – the Kirsh family; Professor Barry Schoub; Dr Richard Friedland; Uriel Rosen (the initiator of the Hatzolah COVID-19 Wellness Programme); and Vivienne Anstey. We are humbled and inspired by their example. They showed the truth of Margaret Mead’s profound words, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Upholding Jewish civil rights remains the core mandate of the SAJBD, but its mission includes leading the community in being an active, identifying part of society. By addressing at our conference such critical issues as the economy, the role of the judiciary, and the Eskom question, we helped ensure that the community, in spite of its small number, continues to be a dynamic part of the national conversation. I congratulate all those who helped to put this very successful event together, and in particular, our superb professional staff team headed by Wendy Kahn. The widespread media coverage that the conference generated, together with the interest shown in such recent Board events as the #MakeUsCount pre-election debates, also shows how our community continues to be regarded as a significant voice

I thank my colleagues for the trust they have placed in me, and look forward to working with them in protecting and promoting the welfare of our vibrant, resilient Jewish community.

Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

Challah – bread of Jewish men’s affliction

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There are many reasons why it isn’t easy to be a Jewish male. Expectation of performance begins at eight days, and hardly eases up until we shuffle off the mortal coil, well ahead of our time, exhausted from the effort and stress of it all.

The expectations are seemingly without end. We need to make our parents proud, we need to provide for our families, to be good husbands and better fathers, and we need to have run at least one marathon in a far-flung city by the time we are 45.

We need to be able to sing in front of the community at our Barmitzvahs, just when we are at our most awkward and when our voices are the most unreliable. We need to be able to intone anything at any given time.

And then, on the one night of the week when we can relax, we are required to cut the challah with the precision of a surgeon, the speed of Usain Bolt, and we need to do so while everyone watches in hungry expectation.

Following the kiddush prayer and the ritualistic washing of hands, there is a period of silence. With no speaking until the eating of the challah, it’s one of the most underrated aspects of being a Jewish male. It’s a moment that represents almost every aspect of “Jewish maleness”, and it happens week after week after week. Why?

Because no matter what, it will be done wrong. The slices will be too thick. Or thin. Or the wrong challah would have been selected. Too much, too little salt will have been added. And the challah serving plate will have been passed in the wrong direction. Eyes will be rolled, lips pursed, and heads will be slowly shaken. From side. To side. To side.

A Jewish male it would seem, cannot please a Jewish woman.

I have asked around. A friend’s wife told me that she can’t stand the way he cuts the challah, and prefers to do it herself. “He just can’t get it right. It’s got so bad that I hardly even let him carve the meat.”

She even went as far as to buy an electric carving knife, which she used before he got home from work on a Friday so that he didn’t need to. It might be worth mentioning that when he’s not “butchering” the challah, he’s a well-respected surgeon. At least he made his parents proud.

And there are those who are too precise for their own good. My father-in-law is one such case. Each piece of challah is measured to perfection. Sliced the way through, and then checked in case any remnants of attachment to the piece before remains, before moving on to slice number two. And so on.

Generally, we like to start Shabbat on Wednesday when visiting, as it takes about that long before we get to eat. All while we sit in silence.

The slicing of challah is the most underrated aspect of being a Jewish male. It carries with it all the expectation along with all the disappointment of generations of men who have failed before them.

It’s a moment that’s shared in all households across the Jewish world week after week. It bonds Jewish women to the past, and will link them to their great granddaughters, who will one day share knowing looks with their sisters as they watch their husband “butcher” the challah, just as their father did.

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