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Benji Aziza leading a packed session at Limmud
All photos by Manny Sousa

Prof. Ira Robinson

Rabbi Alan Green

Avi Dolgan


Jane Enkin


by Jane Enkin, March 28, 2015





The atmosphere at Winnipeg's Limmud 2015 was typically warm and energetic – buzzing in the hallways, conversations at the ample snack table, consultations about how to choose from a huge array of study topics. As the day closed, happy friends displayed their art projects – delicately painted keepahs (workshop taught by Yael Borovich and Channah Greenfield), symbols of peace and fruitfulness worked in clay (workshop taught by Tzafi Weinberg), and “stained glass windows” (children's workshop taught by Lauren Tennenhouse) as they compared notes on the day's adventures in learning. A wonderful team of volunteers, with great support from Federation  staff, made it all happen.





Here is my report on just a few of the many sessions:



Professor Ira Robinson, of Concordia University in Montreal, presented on Religious Life in Mainstream Israel. Jewish Israel, he explains, is usually viewed from two extremes, both very small percentages of the population: the very traditional, very religious minority and the anti-religious minority. “Where do we hear about the haredi 5%? From the anti-religious 5%! Who is talking about the middle? Me!” This set the tone for a light-hearted presentation of detailed research.





Robinson looks at Israel as a place where democracy and tradition are in creative tension, and individualism is balanced with a collective culture. “Middle Israel” is not committed to Jewish law, and in general is uncomfortable with coercion, and yet keeps cultural Jewish traditions.


Most Jews in Israel live lives that are influenced by Jewish practise. On Friday night, it “feels right” to have a family-style meal and make a blessing over wine. On Saturday, it “feels right” to take a day off work – some people might head straight for the beach, others might go to synagogue in the morning and the shopping mall in the afternoon.


And on Yom Kippur, nobody drives. For many Israelis this has nothing to do with God, or repentance, or Jewish law. “And if you tried to make it civil law, there would be resistance,” said Robinson. It is a grassroots consensus. I asked my sister about this a few days later, and she confirmed that the sound of Yom Kippur is a beautiful one, a quiet day in the middle of usually bustling cities.


The sound you will hear, though, is wheels – lots of strollers, but most especially, bikes. Yom Kippur has become the day to give kids their first bicycle lesson in Israeli cities, so much so that stores advertise Yom Kippur bike sales in the weeks before the holiday. With lower carbon-emissions, Yom Kippur has also become the “Green holiday” of Israel.


Robinson concluded by explaining that Jews in Israel find their world is shaped by the Jewish calendar, Jewish rhythms and Jewish customs.





Rabbi Alan Green, who spoke on Techniques of Jewish Meditation, has found satisfaction in meditation for many years. His main practise has been Transcendental Meditation, but in recent years he has learned and taught about Jewish meditation. There are some traditional sources for meditative experience in Judaism, but at Limmud, Green did not provide a history lesson or teach about Jewish meditation in any purist sense. Instead, his focus was on using Biblical words and images from Jewish mystical texts to craft a personal experience.




He began the class with several beautiful, simple chants – traditional morning prayer phrases set to music by Rabbi Shefa Gold. We sang the melodies along with him, some calming and some energizing. Never a fan of silent meditation, I found the singing wonderful.





Green read to the group some intellectually challenging passages from a book by Tamar Frankiel and Judy Greenfeld, Minding the Temple of the Soul: Balancing Body, Mind & Spirit through Traditional Jewish Prayer, Movement and Meditation. The concept that has stayed with me is that we are “hard-wired” for tshuvah – spiritual turning and repentance. The model is that each of us has many levels of soul, from the simplest will to live as an individual all the way to an intense connection to everything that is – and in that intense connection we are “hardwired” in the direction of goodness. Green also read a detailed passage of guided imagery from the book.




At the end of the session, people requested one more song – clearly singing these gentle, spiritual songs together was a valued experience for the group.




Avi Dolgin, the Chairperson of Vancouver's Limmud, brought to Winnipeg his performance piece Yonah ben Amitai & Co. This is a work of midrash (exploration of a Biblical text) through first person retelling, a look at the emotions, motivations and rationalizations of the prophet Jonah.




Dolgin is a strong actor, very physical and passionate, fascinating to watch and to hear. The script he wrote, and constantly adjusts for each audience, is filled with Biblical quotations, traditional midrash and contemporary ideas and references, yet it is most of all a powerful theatre piece.




It was incongruous, but interesting, to see an actor create with words, voice and movement a vivid seascape and landscape in a cramped, visually busy classroom. Dolgin wore a suit and tie, which at the end of the story became an effective costume as Jonah, suffering in sweltering heat, wrenched his jacket off.





Dolgin's script covered the whole Book of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to preach destruction to the city of Nineveh. He hired a ship so he could run away from God, and a great storm came up. “I dealt with it the way I usually deal with stress – I went down in the hold and went to sleep.”





The sailors on board drew lots and found that the storm began because of Jonah, and he told them they would only be safe if they threw him overboard. Dolgin comments on how readily the sailors did tshuvah, turning toward God. “They wanted to take responsibility for a problem I had created.” For Jonah, though, it took three days in the belly of a giant fish to reach his point of turning. “God wants me to return to the Yonah Ben Amitai that I'm supposed to be. Like Noah's dove (yonah) symbol of hope and new beginnings, from a lineage of truth-tellers (emet.)”




He examined his reluctance: “One person can't stand up and say, 'I will make a difference.' But you start to think about Raoul Wallenberg, Elijah Harper, Malala... You can be God's agent.”




Dolgin called out Jonah's prayer in Hebrew, in the traditional melody. After the show he explained that this was the most challenging part of the story for him to interpret in terms of the character of Jonah, a prayer of praise and faith from the otherwise stubborn, stern and fearful prophet.



The response from God, voiced by Dolgin, was cranky and pushy: “Get up!”





Jonah went to Nineveh, and at this point Dolgin strode through the audience shouting, climbed up on the teacher's desk to preach, and intensely proclaimed Nineveh's sins: neglecting the environment; blaming the poor for inner-city crime; turning away refugees... “Willful ignorance! Willful leaving it to authorities!”




In a groundswell of popular opinion, Nineveh did tshuvah, leading the King to follow suit, “... reexamining government priorities, bringing about a transformation in social thinking and public policy...They had the courage to look at things that seemed unsolvable, inevitable...”




Dolgin moved from this contemporary call for collective tshuvah to the enigmatic closing of the Bible story, as Jonah watched to see how things would turn out for Nineveh. “At first I felt happy – this should make me feel happy.” But Jonah became depressed, perhaps because his commitment to truth led to a too-simple sense of justice, the logical consequences of reward and punishment. By the end, the prophet had made at least an attempt to accept God's mercy. “This is a reversal, not following the natural order. When God does this in the physical world, it's called a miracle. In the moral world, it's called tshuvah.”



Bev Aronovitch and Miriam Bronstein, longtime music educators, led a Zingshpiel – Yiddish Sing Along. The happy, enthusiastic crowd knew most of the songs, favourites like Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen and Oyfn Pripitchik. Bronstein sang an expressive, funny solo on Lomir Ale Zingen a Zemerl, with the group joining in for the chorus.


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