Torah, truths, rap and rock: it’s Limmud

By Anna Sheinman, January 3, 2013
Ben Richardson and Joseph Miller (Photo: Anna Sheinman)

Ben Richardson and Joseph Miller (Photo: Anna Sheinman)

Two and a half thousand people attended Limmud 2012, the annual festival of Jewish learning, debate and culture.

Last week, Warwick University hosted seven days of lectures, discussions, exhibitions, concerts, films and a whole lot of Israeli dancing.

One of the most inspiring sessions of this year’s event was a talk by two young men from Stamford Hill who spoke movingly about their decision to leave the Chasidic community.

In their talk, Secrets of the Shtetl, Ben Richardson and Joseph Miller explained to a packed room their individual decisions to leave and the challenges they faced in the outside world.

Mr Miller explained how poor his schooling had been. “It’s almost entirely devoted to religious education,” he said. “You were not allowed to play football, a football itself was considered impure. There’s no music, absolutely nothing besides religious education. It was indoctrination punishable by physical punishment if you didn’t learn things by rote.”

Y-Love, gay religious rapper with a remarkable story (Photo: Anna Sheinman)

Y-Love, gay religious rapper with a remarkable story (Photo: Anna Sheinman)

Although Mr Richardson spoke little English when he ran away from yeshiva, he told the audience how he took literacy and numeracy classes, studied at Cambridge and now works as an economist.

Mr Miller, who came from a Lubavitch family, now works as a freelance journalist. “The majority of Charedim are victims”, he said. But he insisted that it was the system, in which community members were ill-educated and had children young, which was to blame, rather than any particular authority figure.

Another Chasidic community attracting attention was Chabad, the subject of a lecture by American journalist Sue Fishkoff, The Rebbe’s Army.

She spoke about visiting the Washington DC Chabad emissary: “I went to his Lunch and Learn session in a cafeteria underneath the White House. Young staffers from the Pentagon, from the State Department, come downstairs, learn a little Torah, then go back upstairs and make decisions that affect government.”

The biggest session of the conference was a concert by formerly Chasidic reggae artist Matisyahu. Despite it being the most anticipated session of the week, it was a subdued affair.

For Matisyahu, gone are the days of a long beard and peyot, and bouncing around the stage to a rasta beat. The former Matthew Miller is now cleanshaven, trendily dressed and his sound is less Kingston, Jamaica, more Billboard 100. Last week it was his 2009 single One Day, mashed up with Bob Marley’s 1974 hit No Woman No Cry that won the biggest cheers of the night.

Another formerly Chasidic artist got Limmudniks on their feet: African-American, gay rapper Y-Love. In keeping with the spirit of Limmud, it was not just his religious rap, but his remarkable story, From Baltimore to Beverly Hills, that drew crowds.

He explained how he converted despite prejudice against his colour and sexuality. He spoke movingly about going back into the closet after conversion, his arranged marriage in 2003 which lasted only 13 weeks and the racism he experience in yeshiva.

Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris asked if the solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict lay in the novel The City and The City by China Miéville. The science fantasy describes two cities that exist in one place and citizens of each must “unsee” the other city. Mr Kahn-Harris asked, could the solution for Israel be psychological rather than geographical borders?

Other highlights of Limmud 2012 were Israeli envoy Daniel Taub in conversation about the experience of being an ambassador, Strictly Limmud in which Strictly Come Dancing winner Louis Smith delivered a video message and the JC reporter managed not to come last, and a closing ceremony filled with music as well as performance poetry by the delightfully-named Hebrew Mamita.

Last updated: 2:45pm, January 3 2013