It takes something special to make a large number of Jewish Londoners give up a Sunday and head for a Jewish event out of town.
Even before 8am, many had already hit the road or were rolling past the Emirates Stadium on the train from King’s Cross en route to the biennial Cambridge Limmud, which has a reputation for top-notch speakers. More than half of this year’s attendance of 660 came from outside the city.
David Ehrlich, who travelled from Birmingham with his wife Rabbi Margaret Jacobi, described Cambridge as “the Rolls-Royce of day Limmuds”. For unlike others, where volunteers are free to submit offers to run a session, Cambridge invites its presenters.
Israel’s leading playwright Joshua Sobol — best known here for the National Theatre production of his play Ghetto in 1989 — said: “I know about Limmud. They have tried a few times before to contact me and this year I found a possible slot.”
Finchley’s New North London Synagogue sent a sizeable contingent to the event at Anglia Ruskin University, while a group of teenagers came from Belsize Square Synagogue.
Nearly 100 took part in Young Limmud, with separate programmes for five age groups. They included a session on how the story of Chanucah might be presented through modern media run by local Daniel Pearl, editor of Channel 4’s Dispatches and another, from the Polonsky-Coexist lecturer in Jewish studies at Cambridge University, Daniel Weiss, on juggling.
Shally Shefer and her Israeli family arrived in Cambridge nine years ago when husband Guy came to do his PhD and, for a few years, they had little contact with its Jewish set-up. “There is so much of it in Israel you are looking for something else,” she said. “Then I discovered the community and how great it was.” Not only did she attend on Sunday. She was head of Young Limmud, whose participants included her 13-year-old daughter Lihi.
The octogenarian literary critic George Steiner, sometimes notorious for his radical views of Israel and the diaspora, had “not lost his bite”, said one of his large audience. Another local on the bill was historian Sir Richard Evans, a key witness against Holocaust denying author David Irving in the 2000 libel trial.
Classical historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes proved a popular presenter, showing clips of her BBC series Divine Women to illustrate how the record of women in religion shed light on their wider role in civilisation.
“I just want to go to everything and you can’t,” said Cambridge resident Eva Clarke.“It’s a terrific programme, an embarrassment of riches,” remarked Michael Mail from London, the development director of the British Friends of the Hebrew University.
Mr Sobol combined the ideas of the French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, with an account of Jewish zealotry at the time of the destruction of the second Temple to decry “primitive thinking” in today’s Middle East. Jewishness was “undefinable”, he argued, and it was therefore futile for Israel to demand that the Palestinians recognise it as a “Jewish state — we don’t know what that means”.
Another leading Israeli literary figure, Meir Shalev, had his audience in stitches with stories from his family’s pioneering past in Israel. When he was a boy, his grandmother would not let him use the shower in her house — he had to use the outdoor one by the cowshed. “If someone wants to take a shower,” she had reasoned, “it means they are dirty people and I don’t want dirty people in my clean shower”.
Polish-born Agnieszka Legutko came from New York’s Columbia University to run a crash course in Yiddish and a session on Jewish revival in Krakow.
From even further afield, one of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars, Talmudist Daniel Boyarin from Berkeley, California, returned for a third Cambridge Limmud. “It’s lovely to be back,” he told a class of around 100. They got through just one of this three selected Talmud passages in the allotted hour. Had he been able to continue for another two hours, they would happily have stayed.
Professor Boyarin said that without mass learning of Jewish texts in the original language, “the Jewish people is doomed.
“Study, study and promote study,” he counselled his eager students. “That’s the best kind of Jewish survival politics you can imagine.”