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No Mud, No Drugs: Welcome to the Jewish Glastonbury

by David Lasserson
Published on August 31, 2007 in JC.com - The Jewish Chronicle

Green Zionists, rabbinic yoga and Yiddish rap —  it can only be Limmudfest.

The species should not be mixed lest it detract from the perfec­tion and there will not be blessing,” someone reads from the Sefer Ha’Chinuch. The study session on the ethics and halachah of genetic engi­neering is in full swing.

A dozen people are seated in a circle in a small modern confer­ence room in the Peak District. Someone is about to counter with a passage from Maimonides when the refrain of “Ohhhhh… the Hokey Cokey” is heard from the lawn outside. There, a giant circle of three– to six-year-olds are putting their left legs in.

However, the concen­tra­tion of the indoor study circle will not be broken. Noam Dolgin of the Green Zionist Alliance brings them to the million-dollar ques­tion: “Do you think, on balance, from these sources, that it is permis­sible to genet­i­cally modify food?”

But the exte­rior distrac­tions are unremit­ting. “…Shake it all about,” chant the kids, who are falling over them­selves laughing with each new instruc­tion in the song.

They are drunk on fresh air, sunshine and face-paint. Majestic green hills and dramatic sheer rock­faces loom over them. Lower in the valley, they can see the tent city that they temporarily call home.

There is no sound­proofing in this canvas commu­nity. It is hard to sleep late, as the dawn chorus starts early. It has been a cold night. There is a heavy dew on the grass. Around 350 campers are emerging from tents in pyjamas holding towels and wash­bags. The route to the showers takes them past the figure of white-bearded Limmud founder Clive Lawton davening outside his tent.

At break­fast in the canteen, Lawton re-emerges blowing a shofar. Everyone stops talking, then there is a cheer. He grins and sits down to his coffee. “Only a third of the people here know why I do this. The others will ask, and they’ll learn some­thing. That’s the key to Limmud. The person who comes deter­mined to learn about one thing will casu­ally discover some­thing else.”

Micah Gold, one of the founders of Limmudfest four years ago, is beaming like a proud father. “Limmud Galil and Limmud South Africa are both racing to host the first Limmudfest abroad. This is the cutting edge of Limmud.”

The formula of back-to-back study and perfor­mances turned Limmud winter confer­ence into a global event. But younger volun­teers saw that this was out of kilter with the way the rest of the UK likes to gather. “People go to summer festi­vals. They express their concern with the envi­ron­ment. We wanted to take Limmud there,” he says.

Twenty hikers come in after a long walk. They have timed it perfectly. Marcus Freed’s Bibliyoga session, “Freedom for a Stiff-Necked People”, is about to begin. But Freed’s combi­na­tion of yoga prac­tice with a consid­er­a­tion of rabbinic writ­ings faces stiff competition.

The human-rights panel is starting in the other building. James Smith of the Aegis Trust has brought two young refugees from Darfur to tell their stories. Anat Ben Dor of Tel Aviv’s Refugee Rights Clinic lifts the lid on Israeli immi­gra­tion policy. Melissa Weintraub shares how her Encounter programme exposes Jewish dias­pora leaders to Palestinian life. Head of program­ming Daniel Reisel says an essen­tial aspect of Jewish iden­tity is to bear witness.

George Blackstone, this year’s co-chair, takes a moment in the perfor­mance tent to reflect on a year’s volun­tary work by 17 team leaders and 70 volun­teers. “Look at it,” she marvels. “This is a real festival. It’s Jewish cool.” She is in the Promised Land field (just past the Exodus field).

Canadian Yiddish song maverick Socalled has launched into Oy Boy and the tent is dancing. He is now rapping at unbe­liev­able speed. His beats are pumping; the rhymes are coming thick and fast. No-one under­stands them, but they feel like they do. Under a cloud­less sky, at one of the only UK festi­vals to enjoy unin­ter­rupted dry weather, the party is just beginning.

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