Limmudfest proves the Peak of diversity

By Jonathan Kalmus, September 3, 2009
Leah Zeto handing out hats to festival-goers;

Leah Zeto handing out hats to festival-goers;

A queue of Renault Clios struggling up hill roads in the Peak District offered a clue to farming locals that a different kind of summer festival was taking place in Hope Valley, Derbyshire, over the Bank Holiday. Another sign of the arrival of Limmudfest was the Tesco delivery man bringing home comforts to some of the 600 campers at the Cliff College venue.

Fest is the outdoor version of Limmud’s cross-communal educational conference and the brainchild of its executive vice-chair Micah Gold. Even though the event is now in its sixth year — with plans to relocate in 2010 to allow for more outdoor activities — he admits to still feeling strange about seeing so many Jews experiencing life under canvas.

“We’re site searching now,” he explained while walking through a field of tents just 50 metres from the great indoors of the college’s stone structures. “This one doesn’t lend itself to spreading out and being brave enough to take Jews away from a building. My vision is that we will become much more festival-like — more live music and drama and broadening out the learning to encompass what the summer offers.”

But even in its current state, Fest offers an outdoor adventure to an audience usually more comfortable within an indoor social environment. New to the programme this year were three 24-hour hikes of varying intensity.
Navigating hikers through quaint country paths, aptly named American outdoor trail guide (and Jewish educationist) Josh Lake observed that “Moses would chuckle at our poor outdoor experience”.

Those opting for the quieter life joined veteran presenter Rafi Zarum in a 20-minute meditation over a small river during his biblical nature walk.

It is testimony to the eclectic nature of Fest that the biggest crowd-puller was hip-hop poetry star Vanessa Hidary, whose session attracted an audience of 200. Another big crowd gathered to hear the oldest performer, 82-year-old Fran Landesman, whose “slam poetry” was accompanied on guitar by her son Miles Davis Landesman. He said it had been “one of the best times she’s ever had.

“She thought going that far on the train would be a drag but she loved the journey and Limmud have asked her back for December. The only thing that keeps her alive is gigging — she says she’ll be dead if she stops. The young people really liked her because if you hear her material, it’s wild.”

Israeli band Funk’n’stein were also among the musical contributors and some of the more esoteric sessions saw clusters of participants take shelter from the storm clouds in large rickety tents to hear talks on Satan and Jewish spiritual ecology.

Another example of the Fest’s inclusive nature was the invitation of United Synagogue rabbi Natan Levy, the Chief Rabbi’s environmental liaison man, to Islamic Relief and Christian Aid representatives to join his panel on what religions are doing about climate change, a concern he says is rooted in Jewish law.

Funk’n’stein’s Yair Slutzki and Elran Dekel

Funk’n’stein’s Yair Slutzki and Elran Dekel

The four-day affair cost £120,000 to organise and involved an army of volunteers, doing anything from handing out sparkly hats to providing activities for the 129 under-16s at Young Fest. The attraction, said volunteer organising co-chair Miriam Shindler, was to be in “a place where you can go beyond the normal religious groups, especially for people who don’t have a denomination.”

And word certainly got around. Natalia Izcovich, 14, from Barcelona, said she had attended with her parents and 11-year-old brother, having heard about Fest while holidaying in Scotland. However, 37-year-old Pascal Andre had come specially from Paris. “A good friend told me about it,” he said. “I’m discovering my Jewish background, which is very little.” And Finchley-based young professional Francine Haagon observed: “The crowd that comes here have been to mainstream festivals. For families it’s amazing.”

South Londoner Dan Mackenzie, 17, came with two friends, one of whom sold his Reading Festival tickets at a loss to be in Derbyshire. “I’ve been to Glastonbury a couple of times,” Dan said. “This is new, it’s a cultural festival. I went to a talk on pluralism and one on anarchism in Judaism. I
disagreed with both speakers but there was a nice debate. Here everyone can do their own thing with their Jewishness.”

Last updated: 1:14pm, September 3 2009