I spent the last week at an event called Limmud, an incredible gathering of over 2500 people to learn, shmooze, eat, drink, dance, find a shidduch, argue, network, create, inspire…
I have been to Limmud most years for the past few, to the summer ‘festival’ event and to smaller day events throughout the country. This year there was a venue change which saw Limmud move from Warwick University campus to the Hilton Hotel in Birmingham.
On the first day I sat on a purple velvet sofa in the bar area introducing myself to a friend of a friend who had just arrived.
“Why do you come to Limmud?” he asked.
“It is the only place I feel Jewish”, I responded.
But as I sat one morning with my porridge and my coffee beside the little lake that surrounds the hotel, finally breathing some G-d breaths and feeling able to recharge, I questioned my answer. Maybe things change. Limmud felt difficult and different. Maybe because there were more people than usual, maybe because I found the setting stifling, I am not sure. Maybe it’s me who has changed.
But if Judaism and being Jewish is about connecting to and knowing G-d then this is where I feel most Jewish – outside with my back against a tree, breathing in and out, watching the trees and the movement of light on the water.
Going back ‘in there’, back to conference, pouring over texts, being trapped within walls, talking talking talking, I felt ung-d, unconnected, unjewish.
Are these the affects that stay with me after a cycle journey that had me up close to the cheek of g-d everyday for an extended period? Where I would wake up and lie down on the ground beneath stars and a rising sun, where I would pick leaves for my tea from the forest floor and dig my own hole for a toilet?
The other end of that cycle ride involved landing in Israel/Palestine where my relationship with Judaism had its most trying period. Too many times I witnessed a so called expression of Judaism wreak horror and tragedy – from the Israeli government who purport to speak on behalf of all Jews, to extremist settlers who attacked trees and people in the name of some sort of Judaism. I very almost gave up on this religion that could allow or foster space for that to happen.
But painfully and determinedly I realised I could not give up. That what I was witnessing was not Judaism, not the one I am interested in anyway. Again I didn’t find my Judaism in the places I expected – shul, Jerusalem, Friday nights. I found it in the West Bank on hills picking olives, acting as protective presence to Palestinian farmers, in solidarity.
I presented a couple of sessions about this trip at Limmud. I talked about the cycle ride and my time in the West Bank in one session and another one on Cycle ’48, a remapping project I was part of to learn about the Nakba. (The Nakba is Arabic for ‘Catastrophe’ and refers to the displacement of the Palestinian people from their homes in 1948 and beyond).
This last session was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Far harder than the 5000 mile cycle ride that brought me there or the mountains in between, including the Alps. The morning of the session I decided I wouldn’t do it – I’ll do a creative writing session instead, a lake swimming exercise, a ‘how to make g-d purr’ workshop, anything but this trip, this topic.
But a wise, firm voice in my head told me I must.
The kind of voice you’re meant to listen to.
So I did it. And it was really, really hard. But important. And I was blown away by the words of encouragement and support afterwards, the hugs had, the hands held, the tears that fell between shoulders of Jews who believe there has to be another way. And much laughter as the room realised together that my poignant last slide (the image you see on this post) that I thought meant ‘remember’ in Hebrew, is actually just someone’s name graffitied on an old Palestinian house in the rubble of Ajjur.
I am so grateful for difficult opportunities that have to be gone through. I now have so much to learn from – that I could learn only by beginning. Now I carry on, dedicating myself to learning how to tell these stories well, how to carry on even when it is terrifying, how to have hope in our humanity.
I want to give voice to this difficulty because it is important and transformative and there is another side of it. I want to encourage young (and all) people to speak out, whether you’re Jewish or not. You have something important to say. Say it.
Find spaces to speak out and if they don’t exist stand on your chair. Start a blog. Buy baigels and invite friends over.
We need to talk.
And right now, more than ever, people are ready to listen.
This is Judaism – the great conversation. This is the holy thing – learning how to demonstrate solidarity with people who are being oppressed. This is what is possible for Jews who really want to LIVE v’ahavta l’reakha kamokha (to love your neighbour like yourself).
Many people expressed interest in learning more about some of these stories and getting involved. Do keep in touch if you’d like to get involved in this – firstname.lastname@example.org
Below is a very limited list of some links and resources for more information.
On the Nakba:
The Zochrot website has pretty extensive information on the Nakba, including a Nakba map with details of hundreds of villages that were depopulated and/or destroyed in 1948 and 1967, as well as testimonies from Palestinian refugees and Israeli soldiers who were involved.
An American project offering educational resources to American Jews and a general American audience about the history of the Nakba and its implications in Palestine/Israel today. The Nakba refers to the forced displacement of Palestinians that began with Israel’s establishment, and that continues to this day.
Mornings in Jenin, Susan Abulhawa
Everybody should read this book. My mum couldn’t put it down. Generations of Palestinian stories from the Nakba to the present day told in novel form.
Sacred Landscapes, Meron Benevisti
Geographer and former mayor of Jerusalem, Benvenisti explores the multi dimensional map of Israel/Palestine, the Arab spaces he grew up with that vanished and the reality of a shared homeland for all in the region.
On the JNF:
A report documenting some of the environmental injustice, colonialism and ethnic cleansing that a delegation from Friends of the Earth International observed in 2012.
A project of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society exploring the role of the Jewish National Fund.
The blog from the bike remapping project I was part of and discussed at Limmud – cycling from Aida Refugee camp in Bethlehem to Jaffa along the JNF cycle trail.