I write this from Heathrow Airport, bringing to a close my week at Limmud UK. Yesterday was a final jampacked day of learning and socializing with new friends. Breakfast was followed by “Commanding voices – Talmud in a new light,” where a British Reform rabbi taught about the Rabbis created Hanukah with its attendant mitzvot of kindling special lights despite no mention of Hanukah in Tanach. We were a small group of so it was more of a Talmud shiur, albeit non-Orthodox, than a lecture. I definitely want to try something like this at home.
Next up was “Tell me Texts – the weird and wonderful,” where Zev Farber discussed the Talmud sugia where Abaye’s study hall is invaded by a dangerous demon that is only destroyed when a pious visiting rabbis is forced to spend the night there and battle it. Zev and I hit off earlier in the week and shared several meals, including one where two other rabbis had a heated discussion over biblical criticism and its limits. Indeed, one of the great benefits of Limmud was sharing meals with other participants.
After lunch Gilad Halpern interviewed me about sex in the Talmud for the Tel Aviv Review Show on TLV1 RADIO. Eventually my episode will be available on podcast, at which time I will certainly share it. Then I participated in the Limmud Book Club, like most book clubs made up completely by women, where we discussed Alice Hoffman’s “Marriage of Opposites,” about the life of painter Pizzaro’s mother. My contribution was not as an author, but as someone who had recently visited St. Thomas, where Hoffman’s historical novel is set.
I really wanted to attend the closing Gala, but I had to be ready for my ride to the airport at 5 am. And I still needed to pack. I close this post with a link to Zev Farber’s organization
Tuesday was another full day. In the morning I attended a session on “Halachah and Morality,” followed by a screening and discussion of the Israeli documentary film “Sacred Sperm,” which deals with the fanatical prohibitions against masturbation in the Haredi world. It was a fascinating movie, as well as one that most Jews would never imagine could be made.
After lunch I headed back to the Outlet Mall, this time on a quest for Hanukah presents for my children and grandchildren. I found excellent bargains at a toy store whose entire inventory had to go in order to make room for new stock coming in after Xmas. Of course I was also playing Pokemon Go when I went on these walks around the lake, capturing all sorts of creatures I rarely see in Los Angeles. It was especially exciting to capture Mr. Mime, a pokemon that can only be found in Western Europe.
When I returned in the late afternoon, weighted down by my purchases, I had only a short rest until it was time for my final lecture on How I Went from a Clinical Chemist to Historical Novelist. After that I heard a debate about “The Temple Mount: a historical (un)reality,” which got quite heated at times. After dinner I stayed up to attend a presentation by the “Misogynist Film Club: the musical,” which as you can imagine focused on all the sexism this genre serves up. I was most entertained/enlighten by a section on the evolution of Disney Princesses. Quite a contrast to Sacred Sperm
terday was the first day with Limmud UK at full attendance, it is showed in jammed corridors, long lines for meals, and very noisy dining rooms. It did not show in more crowded lectures because there were lots more sessions scheduled to absorb the multitudes. I attended “Women reading Torah: a rabbinic dilemma, Is there such a thing anymore as a single Jewish people, The world of Jewish and non-Jewish book publishing, A new look at women and Torah knowledge in the talmudic period.”
Plus I occupied a few hours shopping the Boxing Day [Dec 26] sales at the Pendigo Outlet Mall across the lake, spending the pounds I had left over from my days in London. There were some substantial discounts and I was able to buy myself two pairs of very comfortable walking shoes in addition to lots of new clothes for my grandchildren, all for less than £70, an even greater bargain considering how the pound’s value has dropped against the dollar recently.
My day ended with my only evening presentation, “Talmud After Dark,” when I spoke about my new book, Fifty Shades of Talmud. The majority of the audience had not attended either of my earlier sessions, yet the room was so full they needed more chairs [always gratifying to a speaker]. I wasn’t sure if this mainly English group would find my talk as amusing as in the US, what with England’s prudish reputation, but they laughed in the right places even if they were a bit embarrassed to do so. This time I brought signed books to sell at the end, for the easy and low price of 5 quid each. Which means it’s back to the Outlet Mall for me this afternoon.
Xmas at Limmud is almost like being in Israel. No carols on the musak, no green and red decorations hanging around, and nobody wishing me a “Merry Christmas.” Also I regularly overhear conversations in Hebrew. Of course I’m running around like crazy, trying to attend as many sessions as possible, with my schedule changing as I learn about new fabulous teachers.
For example, yesterday I attended lectures titled “Why are women in war film moral degenerates?, Psyche in the Sugya: do we ever understand the other?, Gender issues in the Talmud, Who shall live and who shall die: the High Holiday prayer we love and hate, The Temple was destroyed: did this save Judaism?” [the answer to this last question is ‘maybe’]. All this was in addition to taking a morning walk around Pendigo Lake and my presentation on “Jewish women in Rashi's community were way ahead of their time,” which brought in a very gratifying attendance.
I’m meeting some lovely people at meals and have acquired some fans from my two talks. I ate dinner with three men from Stockholm and participated in a delicious argument on the Israeli Rabbinut’s authority, or lack of it, and whether the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch is more important in formulating Jewish Law today. Small world that at least one of the men is friends with my first chevruta, Rabbi Aaron Katz, who was the Orthodox rabbi in Sweden for many years.
I’d write more but I have to get to breakfast early, on account of wanting to attending a session by Judith Hauptman of JTS on “Women reading Torah: a rabbinic dilemma.”
For more on Limmud UK, check out this link.
I have now spent 30 hours at Limmud UK, which included all of Shabbat. The hotel and dining room seem crowded with people now, yet more than three times as many attendees will arrive tomorrow. Good news is that I have established a stable sleeping schedule at night; bad news is that I wake up between 5 and 6 am, when nothing is happening, which means that I’m pretty much pooped out by 9 pm, when there are still several more hours of activities.
I did my first presentation this morning, which I think went very well. I was worried at first when I had less than a minyan with just a few minutes to go before the official start time. But within ten minutes nearly all the 50+ chairs were full, and more people kept dropping in [apparently abandoning other sessions]. I could tell pretty soon that my audience was appreciating my talk. I was gratified that almost nobody left early, and that nearly everyone stayed after for an additional 20 minutes until the many questions were answered. Thankfully I knew the answers to nearly all their questions, some of which were quite scholarly. So, one session down, four more to go.
Saturday, Dec 24, 11:30. Jewish magic from Talmudic times: what it is and how it is still with us today?
Sunday, Dec 25, 14:30. Jewish women in Rashi's community were way ahead of their time
Monday, Dec 26, 20:10. Talmud after dark
Tuesday, Dec 27, 16:40. How I Went from a Clinical Chemist to a Historical Novelist
Wednesday, Dec 29, 14:30. The Tel Aviv Review podcast - live recording interview by Gilad Halpern.
morrow morning my four days of getting over jetlag and adjusting to UK time [i.e. playing tourist in London] when I board a coach that will take me, and a bus-full of other Limmudniks, to Birmingham for the start of Limmud UK. Here is a brief description of these last jampacked days.
I arrived safely in London late Monday afternoon, just in time to check into my hotel and have a fish & chips dinner at a nearby pub. The fog had cleared so I took a what I hoped would be a short walk to Victoria Station to get my bearings and a feel for the neighborhood, but I got turned around several times and had to ask for directions. When I finally got back, I forced myself to stay up until at least 9 pm local time and tried to get a good night’s sleep even though my body thought it was midafternoon.
Tuesday started out sunny, but nippy [45 degrees], so I took a long walk rather than the Tube. According to Google Maps, I traveled just over 7.5 miles, visiting some of the most famous London icons: Westminster Abby, Big Ben, Parliament, St. James Park, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Kensington Palace, Victoria & Albert Museum, and Sloane Square Xmas lights. Dinner at my hotel was the Xmas special, roast turkey with all the trimmings. Except in the UK that means brussel sprouts, not cranberry sauce.
I spent pretty much all day Wednesday doing "Jewish" London. First a London Walks tour of the old Jewish quarter in the East End, including the Bevis Marks Synagogue. After lunch, a visit to the Jewish Museum in Camden Town. Then I met fellow Limmudnik Sarah Chandler for dinner and a movie, an excellent uplifting one for the season: A Street Cat named Bob, at Leicester Square [London's version of NY’s Times Square].
Today/Thursday was dedicated to the British Museum. The weather was sunny so I decided that if I could walk 7.5 miles on Tuesday, I could certainly walk the 2.6 miles to the Museum and back - especially since my path would traverse some famous London boulevards like Buckingham Palace Road, plus Piccadilly, Regent, and Oxford Streets. The museum artifacts from the world's greatest ancient civilizations were indeed impressive, but it was difficult for me to ignore the controversy of how they were obtained [i.e. looted]. I made sure not to leave until it was getting dark so I could appreciate the fantastic Xmas decorations that lit up the shopping district.
But I admit that all this Xmas overload is making me eager for a week of Jewish studies.
Later today I will board a Virgin Atlantic nonstop flight to London. There I will spend a few days sightseeing and getting over jetlag before I join almost 3000 attendees at Limmud UK, where I have been invited to give five presentations between Dec 24 and Dec 28. According to its website, Limmud is:
1. an international charity based in the UK
2. the greatest opportunity in world Jewry
3. exciting and innovative
4. powered by learning
5. based on its values which includes diversity, choice and volunteerism
6. organised almost entirely by thousands of volunteers
7. a model and an inspiration for over 80 Limmud groups across the world – from Bogota to Beijing, from Jerusalem to Johannesburg, from Moscow to Mar del Plata, from New Zealand to New York.
According to Wikipedia, Limmud Conference, which takes place every year in the last week of December, is the organisation's flagship event. The event, which was inspired by the CAJE conference in the United States, was first held in 1976, making this its fortieth year. A typical day at Limmud Conference includes around 200 sessions spanning religious, cultural, and political aspects of Jewish life.
Those who follow my blog may notice that this is the third Limmud conference I’ve spoken at this year. My first, Limmud NY, was over President Weekend in February, and in retrospect I must have made a good impression because I was invited to speak at Limmud Bay Area in June, and the granddaddy of them all, Limmud UK, next week. By invited, I mean they paid my travel expenses and allowed me to attend the conference for free. But I receive no honorarium and I assume other presenters don’t either. On the other hand, round-trip airfare to London, room & board for a week, and a chance to spend a week studying with some of Judaism’s greatest teachers from around the world is payment enough.
Last June, when I spoke at Limmud Bay Area, the YidLife Crisis duo was there to entertain us. I loved their shtick and promptly watched all their videos when I got home. What an irony that I, one of their greatest fans, should hear about their new December holidays effort from my daughter posting it on Facebook instead of my getting an email from them. If you know even a smattering of Yiddish, you'll doubly appreciate their songs by noticing that the English translation is not quite accurate. So watch and enjoy already. I know you’ll want to experience yourself, so here is the Youtube link
This time I am writing from the Charlotte Amelie airport in St. Thomas waiting to board our flight to Miami and hence back to LA. As usual on my book trips, I met some lovely people, some of whom were previously merely faces on Facebook. Not like usual, my husband came with me and we stayed on to vacation. Our hosts took great care of us; wining and dining us in addition to putting us up at a local resort.
So for those considering a vacation in the Virgin Islands, here are the pros and cons. Pros include lovely weather, at least when the trade winds are blowing. Then the high is 84 and the low 75. A big pro is the abundance of gorgeous beaches, with water so warm you just walk in and swim [or snorkel]. For those who like water sports, there are unending choices, and for those who like to drink alcohol, rum is cheaper than soda or juice. And with its lack of taxes, duty-free St. Thomas is the place to shop until you drop.
Neither drinkers nor shoppers, we spent our daylight hours snorkeling at sites that boasted a splendid variety of both fish and corals in amazingly clear water. I haven’t seen anything similar since we snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef in 2002. We even managed to swim with some green sea turtles.
But now for the cons. When the trade winds slackened, it became so humid that the sliding glass doors to the patio of our air-conditioned room fogged over. Walking outdoors was exhausting, reminding my husband of his army days in Louisiana. And with no sidewalks except in the downtown shopping area, there is no place to walk except along the narrow streets. Unfortunately driving is a challenge; rental cars are expensive, parking is hard to find, most streets are not lit at night, and to it more difficult, you drive on the left side of the road. But the alternatives are no better. Public transportation is for the locals who know where they’re going and don’t mind how long it takes. My biggest con is the taxi system. Unlike elsewhere, here you pay by person, not by distance. Every place we wanted to go cost $10 a person, i.e. $40 roundtrip for two, plus tip, making excursions and dining out significantly more expensive.
Another con is the enormous number of tourists who arrive on cruise ships, sometimes doubling St. Thomas’ population of 50,000. We had to plan our itinerary depending on which days had the most, or least, ships in port. Perhaps the deciding factor about the Virgin Islands is where you live. We had to take two flights to get here from LA, the first 5+ hours to Miami, and the second almost 3 hours. Plus there is the 2 hour layover between flights, and the 4 hour time difference. In summary, we left LA at 8 am and arrived in St. Thomas at 10:30 pm. Those from the East Coast or Midwest, their flying time will be shorter. For us, flying to Hawaii would take half the time and the airfare would be less for essentially the same benefits. Oh, and one more thing, both VI and Hawaii have lots of mosquitoes, but at least in Hawaii one doesn’t have to worry about Vika.
I am writing this from my American Airlines flight to Miami, from where I’ll transfer to the plane that will deliver me to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. When I started writing Rashi’s Daughters almost twenty years ago, I never imagined anyone would read it except me or that it would ever get published. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I would complete the thing. But that first novel turned into a trilogy, successful enough that my publisher Penguin wanted me to write another historical series with a different Jewish heroine and JPS had me edit my original book into one for YA readers.
But as surprising as my midlife career change from chemist to historical novelist was discovering that I was a good speaker, that Jewish women’s groups were excited to hear about the fascinating things I’d learned while researching my novels. And so I embarked on a third career, one which has taken me to the majority of states in the US, plus Canada and Israel. My husband rarely comes with me, only if there’s a way to combine my book tour with a vacation. Of course he accompanied me to Israel, but we also visited Lake Tahoe, toured Olympia Nat’l Park, drove the Blue Ridge Parkway, and partied in New Orleans at Mardi Gras after I did programs in nearby Jewish communities.
With experience, and good recommendations, came invitations to do scholar weekends, some, like Limmud NY, quite prestigious. Which is how it is that this month I, with my husband in tow, is on my way to do a weekend at the historic Synagogue of St. Thomas. And a week after we return I’m off to London for 6 days at the granddaddy of Jewish learning events, Limmud UK.