G reetings from Birmingham, U.K., coal mining epicentre and birthplace of Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osborne (or, as we like to call them, Shvartzn Shabbes and Izzy Bornstein). We write you on the latest stop of YidLife Crisis’ first European Tour (what internally we are calling “National Lampoon’s European Excommunication”).
We started in Krakow, Poland, where we performed in the 16th-century-built High Synagogue, and found a fascinating combination of old survivors and many young non-Jews interested – in both academic and very practical, living ways – in the country’s re-emerging Jewish roots. We also learned that Krakow was named for its medieval King Krak (references to Rob Ford were lost on our tour guide).
Next was a Yiddish Anarchist tour of London’s historic East End. Many Jewish Russian and Polish immigrants arrived there at the turn of the century to live in sweatshop poverty, only for the neighbourhood to become gentrified as “the” hip new area. (It’s NYC’s Lower East Side meets Kensington Market, sprinkled with equal parts curry and Monty Python.)
While we learned a lot on that tour and thought we had Britain’s Jews pegged, our gestalt would getgeshtupt in Birmingham, site of Limmud UK, the largest Jewish conference of its kind. For 35 years, around Christmas, British Jews of all sects, orientations, dialects and relative resemblances to Benny Hill assemble for what can best be described as a veritable fringe festival of Jewish learning: academic conference meets music festival meets Jewish summer camp – in winter. (FYI, British Jews don’t eat Chinese or go to movies on Christmas. They also call bagels “beigels” – Euston, we have a problem).
Limmud UK is the crown jewel in a global network of Limmuds – which includes events in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa – and attracts an incredibly diverse assembly of Jews and non-Jews among the more than 2,000 attendees, from the frum to the foul (that’s us, obviously). Impressively, it’s all buoyed up by the tireless work of 70 year-round volunteers, running entirely on youthful optimism and caffeine (realistically, the only two things that can save the world). There were 1,100 presentations given, not including seminars on where bathrooms are located.
Some of the more salient presentations that caught our attention, from the most intellectual to the most sensual:
- Why the future is haredi… and why it might not be: Jonathan Boyd of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research has European Jewish demographics down to a science and as good a view as any about how the future of British Jewry might play out. Haredi or not, here they come?
- JDOV Talks: These recorded online talks are like TED talks done by and for Jews (not to be confused with YID Talks, Yiddish ramblings that we shout at each other after our third pint of Guinness). To our dismay, we were privileged enough to be asked to give one of these talks – we’ll post it next month for your viewing “pleasure.”
- Anglo-Yiddish popular culture –Cockney-Yiddish music hall: Be honest, you can’t not be interested in “Cockney Yiddish.”
- Is Porky Pig Jewish? It’s the question we’ve always wanted answered but were afraid to ask. Until now.
- Rebbetzin’s disco: A Limmud favourite, it’s an inebriated dance party DJed by a rebbetzin and her associates. BYOB (Bring Your Own Booze/Bencher).
- Zusha: We’re biased because they appear in our videos, but a packed hall can’t lie. This chassidic trio is like Matisyahu if he multiplied by three, harmonized with himself, and put his tzitzit back on.
- Gefilte fish! New York’s Gefilteria are experts of, amongst other things, the Gefilteration process. Can you say Carp-e Diem?
- The power of smell in Judaism: This one left us speechless.
B’emess, hats off to the British Jews (the Brews?) for the lively learning and enrichment. And such huge portions! God bless their inquisitive minds. And God save the Queen (Elizabeth II or Barbra Streisand – your call).