Limmoed, a menu of Jewish texts and teachings, history and personal stories

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brought together to make connections with the urgent issues of the day

The Limmoed Nederland half-day meeting last Sunday brought together 200 participants, including 28 speakers (25 sessions; 5 tracks) and an army of Limmoed volunteers to manage the online ‘Rooms’.  From what I heard, participants and organisers alike were well pleased with the variety of offerings and the lively atmosphere of the lectures and discussion.

The typical Limmoed event presents us with a menu of Jewish texts and teachings, history and personal stories, brought together to make connections with the urgent issues of the day.  Jewish teaching and law (‘Torah’ encapsulates both meanings) have always evolved, seeking to adjust to the present in the context of the past. Awareness of this link could scarcely be in greater need than at the present time. Just as we face massive environmental change, unresolved racial tensions, refugee crises and growing devastation of the natural world we cannot expect to cope without looking carefully at how we got here. Nothing is new under the sun, least of all the tendency of one group to denigrate another and to see all problems as the fault of the ‘other’. 

The following selective report is based mainly on my own choice of sessions. From what I hear there were many more equally inspiring presenters.

The Limmoed principle of listening respectfully rather than arguing aggressively was never more relevant. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and concern for the fate of the Uyghurs in China, Jonathan Schorsch reminded us of the not so distant history of Jews as slave owners in the Dutch colonies. How a ‘halachic’ approach to the ownership of domestic servants deteriorated as slave trading became a major activity. Maxine Marcus showed us how her mother’s experiences in the Shoah became the springboard for a career as an international criminal prosecutor. How a law lecturer confronted her tendency to look back at the horrors of the past and suggested that she could use her law training to do something about present injustices.  

Nathan Lopes Cardozo has turned his complicated family background to good use, working to show how halachah can evolve to deal with the crisis of religion and identity.  Kineret Sittig brought us an esoteric piece of textual research looking at Ibn Ezra’s last known writing The Shabbat Letter, an enquiry into the question When does Shabbat commence? The issue is not so much about the proper interpretation of Genesis 1:5 (It was evening and it was morning, one day) but about our freedom to interpret Torah in ways which contradict the sages of old. Sounds familiar?

The Ets Haim – Livraria Montezinos is famous but relatively unknown. Apart from the synagogue building itself, it is perhaps the Portuguese community’s greatest treasure – manuscripts and precious books from the 13th century onwards. Asjer Waterman led us through the recent history of its magnificent restoration after the trauma of the war years.

Jewish education in Amsterdam; 1796 to 1817 was, for me, a marvellous example of a Limmoed session which didn’t sound too exciting but was, in fact, dramatic history, illustrating the intertwining of great political events and evolution of the Dutch Jewish community. The Emancipation of 1796 seemed a good thing at the time, but inevitably led to loss of identity and a requirement to conform to Dutch language and behaviour.  By 1817 Yiddish had been banned. Rob Snijders transformed a bunch of dates and names into a compelling narrative.

The Jewish cemeteries of Amsterdam are a potted history of the community as a whole and a clear illustration that in death we are definitely not all equal. Minimal burial plots with no lasting memorial for the poor in Zeeburg and well-spaced graves with a headstone down the coast at Muiderberg for the wealthy. Bart Wallet brought all to life.

With such a rich variety of topics and vibrant teaching, I look forward to the next Limmoed Nederland.

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Daniel Borin is a civil engineer. He grew up in south Manchester in a community of Baghdadi and Aleppo Jews, many of them attracted to the area by their connections with the cotton trade. His introduction to the study of Tanach and Mishnah was by Rabbi Ades, sent by the Aleppo emigré community in Israel to breath new life into the Didsbury community. Later Daniel was taught midrash and Hebrew grammar by David Kamchi, one of the young men brought over from Tunisia by the Spanish and Portuguese community. These Sephardi influences left Daniel largely ignorant of Ashkenazi practice. Over the years he has come to appreciate the beautiful tropes and traditions of both worlds.

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