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Penny Jones Square: A Reflection on Limmud Winnipeg 2013

by Penny Jones March 10, 2013

“. . . scholarly devotion . . . for Jews is worship first class . . .”

 Mark Helprin, In Sunlight and in Shadow

This “scholarly devotion,” which is synonymous with worship for Jews, was for me the defining quality of Limmud’s “Festival of Jewish Learning.” And congruent with this devotion to learning was the underlying spirit of celebration. Each of the seven lectures I attended was a call to learn and to celebrate; whether the speaker was discussing his torture as a POW by the Egyptians in 1973, or the antisemitism inherent in the elite university system until the 1960s, the current situation in Syria and its possible outcomes for Israel, the women of Exodus, the golem in literature, the life of a Holocaust survivor in Montreal, or her personal experiences living in Israel, the speakers not only shared their learning, they also exemplified and so celebrated the remarkable resilience of the Jews, their passion and reverence for life, their commitment to justice and righteousness, their enduring resolve to survive, and their firm faith founded on their refusal to despair despite a long history of suffering.

What was extraordinary about Arie Lavy’s account of his torture by the Egyptians, in his discussion “Can You Survive Captivity,” was his honesty and, surprisingly, his humour. And more surprising still was the total absence of anger, resentment, bitterness, and hate—though his answer to his own question was “No, you cannot survive captivity,” he also said adamantly, “I do not hate.” His closing comments on the Israeli Government’s release of hundreds of convicted terrorists and murderers in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilat Shalit, were enlightening. He argued this decision would not weaken the state of Israel as many critics claimed, rather it would strengthen it. As a former IDF soldier, he knows the state depends on its soldiers having the hope that its government will do everything in its power to save them—without that hope they could not fight. Therefore, by confirming this hope in saving Gilat Shalit, the Government of Israel made the only “moral choice.”

Dan Oren’s “Joining the Clubs: The Fall and Rise of Jews at Yale and other Elite Universities” was similarly informative and inspiring. His discussion of the Jews’ struggle to gain acceptance and their progress from exclusion to a position of leadership again demonstrated the Jews’ incredible determination to advance against all odds—their refusal to relinquish hope or accept defeat.

Shimshon Elazar offered insights on “The Syrian Revolution—What Does it Mean for the Jews?” based on his experience as a former IDF soldier, and on his passionate interest in and intensive personal study of the current situation as it is changing on a daily basis. In presenting his perspective, he gave a background and context for the crisis, facts and figures not widely known, and implications for Syria,

Israel, and the region, which, though not entirely hopeful, did provide for a better understanding of the situation. Again, his evident passion to learn and to share his learning was palpable.

Rabbi Ari Ellis’s discussion of “The Six Amazing Women of Exodus” on the pivotal role of women in the Exodus story was thought-provoking. Especially interesting was the new light he shed on the role of Pharaoh’s daughter and the two midwives, Shifia and Puah, as righteous gentiles and, possibly, the first to practise civil disobedience.

Brenda Barrie’s fascination with the figure of the golem in contemporary literature was infectious and has inspired me to look into the works she recommended by Cynthia Ozick and Michael Chabon in particular. The transformation of the golem from saviour—a symbol of hope that sustained Jews in times of increasing persecution—to a threat that has to be uncreated is intriguing and made me wonder whether the original folk tales or the contemporary reiterations suggest the failure of hope resides in the creator rather than the creature, which is what Mary Shelley suggests in her rendering of the trope in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

Eli Herscovitch’s reading from a story of his beloved friend, Solomon Ary, was very moving and engaging, and it was further enlivened by Eli’s wonderful performances of Klezmer style music that punctuated his reading. Herscovitch’s devotion to keeping Ary’s legacy alive reveals a depth of love for the man and respect for his literary gift. It also brings to mind another favourite quotation from Mark Helprin concerning bringing back the dead (an ongoing concern of all his novels): “love can overcome death. . . . what is required of you is memory and devotion.”

Finally, Danita Aziza’s “Life Lessons in the Land of Israel” was a perfect summation of what I learned from all the lectures I attended. In describing her experiences living in Israel, she celebrated the very virtues and values evident in each speaker—their refusal to say, “I can’t,” their profoundly held opinions, their passion, their being “grounded in the past but living fully in the present,” and their astonishing ability to “make the most of every day” in defiance of daily threats to their very existence. Her description of life in Israel as full, dynamic, joyful, celebratory—and exhausting—encapsulates my experience of Limmud.

On a more critical note, the opening play, “The Black Jew Dialogues,” was troubling to me; although hilarious at moments, it made me very uncomfortable at many others. For example, the comment, “You invented the ghetto, but we live in them,” was very disturbing for a couple of reasons. The Jews did not “invent” the ghetto; the city of Venice in 1516 ordered the creation of the first ghetto, Ghetto Nuovo, and in 1555 the institution of Italian ghettos was formalized by Pope Paul IV’s papal bull, “Cum nimis absurdum.” And the claim to live in ghettos while Jews do not has dark implications—even if entirely inadvertent and unconscious. Though it intended to promote understanding by dialogue, the play’s message was undermined by the comparison being made throughout between the experience of Jews and that of African Americans.

Suggesting Auschwitz can be equated with slavery is patently wrong; though both are horrific assaults on the very notion of humanity, they are not “the same thing.” Being bought and sold for labour is very different from being hunted down and slaughtered in a killing factory according to a state-sanctioned, systematic, globalized attempt to exterminate your whole people. By universalizing suffering, the play finally does not help one to better understand either atrocity.

Not to end on a negative note, I would like to express my gratitude to the organizers who made this amazing event possible. I appreciated the opportunity to learn and to celebrate learning in this way.

 
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