Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Of Limmud and Long Tails

Even working on Christmas day doesn’t make me miss being Jewish in England. And while its neither good manners nor fair to bite that hand that raised you, the 'shul Judaism' of the motherland - mainly bland and uninspiring (for both religious and secular) - is not a great advertisement for religion.

Yet for one week a year, between Christmas and New Year, Anglo Jewry provides what remains one of the most amazing occasions of diverse Judaism I have ever experienced; the Limmud Conference.

Over 2000 Jews from different continents and denominations meeting in Nottingham to enjoy Shiurim on Gemara, discuss philosophy, debate social issues, dance to Jewish rap, experience Torah yoga…14 sessions a day, each with over 20 options.

And while there's many I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, the overall diversity, dynamism, and feeling that one is engaging in a 'live religion' has no parallel.

A book I recently read called the Long Tail describes how the rise of the internet and ensuing option of infinite choice has shifted us from a mass to a niche culture.

If the search for popularity previously required looking for the lowest common denominator - 'dumming down' in order to appeal to the masses, creating a 'one size fits all' product - the new situation has shattered the mainstream into a 'zillion different cultural shards'.

And when more choice and more opportunities are offered, the most exciting, inspiring and intellectually attractive choices rise to the top.

Jewish life in some areas of Israel reminds me of the Long Tail. If in England, Judaism needed to be 'one size fits all' in order to appeal, the critical mass of Jews in Israel provide an opportunity to move into 'niche Judaism'. Take the issue of minyanim in the Katamon neighbourhood as an example; Whether its Bratslav, Carlebach, Sefardi or Ashkenazi, traditional, egalitarian, or kinda egalitarian - whether the mechitza looks like the entrance to a medieval castle, a gallery, transparent or invisible, whether it goes between front and back or down the middle, its all here - somewhere in the infinitesimal sea of opportunity and options of Judaism.

Outside those few square miles of Katamon, Baka and Rehavia however, religious tolerance and diversity are not a highlight of Israeli life. And even many secular Israelis believe that the only legitimate shul they don’t go to is an Orthodox one.

The return of sovereignty has given us many challenges, not all of which we are able to solve. But it would be a shame to miss this opportunity for utilising the critical mass of Jews to create a long Jewish tail, a Judaism of different shades and sizes, in which the cream rises to the top to the benefit of all of us.

And in this context, there's actually a lot we could learn from those who are spending this 'festive' week locked in thought and discussion in the good ol' English countryside.


Nina S Bendheim said...

Beautiful. I may even go as far as to say a favorite..

Anonymous said...

Nice. Made me think.

I bumped into a Chassidic gent a few weeks ago who insisted that I put on tefilin.

So I asked him why?

And his reply was its a mitzva.

So I said well why put words in boxes and strap them to our arms and foreheads?

So he said because the torah says so.

I said ok, show me where.

He says well its not in the Torah exactly, its more from the Rabbinical commentary. The words in the Torah are quite vague. Something about binding words on your head and your arm or something.

So I said ok, if thats the case, why should the interpretation stay the bloody same for so long? Dont you think its about time for a change? Try interpret it another way.

So he said no.

I said why?

Same old ashkenazi answer from the movies: TRADITION!

So I said, well sod the bloody tradition and be untraditional for once.

No we cant do that he says.

I said why, we dont have a hell like our gift giving tree loving ham eating friends, so why not? Whats the worst that could happen?

Anyway, we could always say to the Boss upstairs that we were trying something different to try to get a grip on what he was trying to say in the first place.

I dont think we'd get an adverse reaction.

In fact

Im sure hed probably smile at our efforts and be slightly bemused.

Hashem does have a sense of humour.

Anonymous said...

This is a great yair lapid article
(kindly copied and pasted with Calev's kind endorsment)

Hopefully will lift the spirits of a certain miz noodles as well.

Israelis, stop complaining!

Based on impressive 2007 figures, we have many reasons to celebrate

Yair Lapid Published: 01.01.08, 17:00 / Israel Opinion

Think back 20 years. On January 1st, 1988 Israel was a frightened nation, torn between anxiety and fury. Three weeks earlier, on December 8th, the first Intifada broke out. It would last for another four years and fundamentally change our lives.

Think back 10 years. On January 1st, 1998 Israel was a beaten, terror-stricken country, licking its wounds. It ended the year with a heavy sigh, the year of the Helicopter Disaster, the murder of the seven students by a Jordanian soldier, the double suicide bombing that killed 15 people in a Jerusalem market, and the Flotilla 13 disaster that claimed the lives of 12 of our best soldiers. Even the Dow Jones sank to the point where trading was halted in New York. Thousands of Israelis lost their savings. The unemployment rate grew by 15 percent.

Now look at the figures you see in the newspapers these days. If we only look at them, we had many reasons to get drunk in last night’s New Year’s party. Not in order to forget anything, but rather, to celebrate. The number of people killed in terror attacks has declined steeply, economic growth is above 5 percent for the fourth year in a row, the stock exchanged was up by 32 percent, thereby completing an overall 270 percent rise in the past five years, unemployment is down, and even our government is stable.

So why are we so depressed? What’s happening to us?

Overwhelmed by information
The first reason is that we are overwhelmed by the media. In 1988 we only had one television channel. In 1998, Channel 2 was only in existence for five years. Ten years later, the offensive is on: We start the morning with Hamas on the Internet, the newspaper near the door with the Iranian threat, and on to dozens of regional radio stations screaming about the rising crime, while free newspapers filled with government corruption fly in our direction as we wait at a red light. By evening time, 110 television stations incessantly discuss the Olmert affairs. Another little Internet visit before going to bed to see what’s going on with the Holocaust survivors, six hours of sleep, and it all starts again.

Israelis are overwhelmed by information. All senses come under attack, all the time, and particularly with bad news. Censorship died on the Internet; responsibility and fairness dissipated because of the competition; criticism, along with its little sister, malice, has already crossed all the red lines.

It is becoming clear that no journalist or commentator can go on air and announce to the nation that “in fact, the situation is not bad.” In fact, he would have to find another job fairly quickly. Slowly we are becoming convinced that it’s bad out here, even if the facts show otherwise.

The second reason for being depressed is that we’re doing well. I know it sounds absurd, but most of us – not all of us, of course – are more preoccupied with the state of the nation because we are not as preoccupied with our own situation. We have something to eat, and where to live, and we can even start talking about another vacation to Turkey. This enables us to be very angry at the police because our car was stolen. I’m the first one who thinks that’s a problem, but until we get the replacement car from the insurance company, we have no problem using the bus. After all, it won’t blow up.

Every people has its own characteristics. The Italians are happy, the Brits are cold, the Germans are calculated, and we like to complain. This is our national sport and a completely integral part of our public discourse. We live in one of the world’s best countries – economically, morally, socially, and democratically – yet we keep on complaining about it.

I have no idea why we’re like this, but I just introduced a new genre: The time has come to complain about the complaining.