Jewish cultural encounters

The annual Lo Bashamayim festival of Jewish culture in Kfar Blum starts Sunday.

Jewish education 88 (photo credit: )
Jewish education 88
(photo credit: )
Besides pressing national security problems without, and endless political bickering within, the country is said to be divided along religious-secular lines. Much has been written and said about the lack of understanding and respect between the two camps, and some have even gone as far as to maintain that the lack of unity may be the greatest danger this country faces. Then again, there also appears to be something of a Jewish revival in the offing. A couple of secular yeshivot have sprung up, and increasing numbers of secular Israelis are starting to explore Jewish traditions, without necessarily adopting an observant lifestyle. Some will no doubt be in Kfar Blum this Sunday through Tuesday (June 24-26) to attend the ninth annual Lo Bashamayim ("Not in Heaven") Festival. Of the dozens of cultural festivals held throughout the year, Lo Bashamayim is one of the more surprising. The three-day event features panel discussions, seminars, lectures, debates and a generous helping of musical entertainment. Among the latter are top acts such as Yehudit Ravitz and Ephraim Shamir, while the country's top world music specialist, radio presenter Dubi Lentz, will talk about the history and role of Jewish music. If the speaker roster is any indication, the festival's standing is in the pink. The VIP lecturers and panel interlocutors include such personalities as former minister Yossi Sarid, judge emeritus Yaakov Tirkel and former MK and Zionism activist Lova Eliav. As the event's market appeal has spread, the range of items on the agenda has grown. This year's main theme is Israeli Jewish culture, to be explored in disciplines ranging from literature, cinema, philosophy, music and dance to the army and communications. Naturally, if there's anything Jewish going on, you've got to eat, and TV chef Gil Hovav will be on hand to enlighten patrons about all manner of dishes served in Jewish homes across the globe. Rabbi Benny Lau, one of the main speakers, is delighted with the festival's growing success. "Yes, there is a lot of talk about divisions between observant and secular Jews, but Loh Bashamayim is about finding common ground, and not sorting out who is right and who is wrong," he says. That, however, does not preclude debate, which can sometimes even stray into the fiery areas of bilateral discourse. "Arguments can get heated," Lau continues, "but that's fine. The most important thing is for people to respect each other's viewpoints." Interestingly, the balance between observant and secular Jews who attend the festival has shifted over the years. "At first, there were more religious Jews," notes festival committee member Hagi Agmon. "It gradually balanced out, and now more secular Jews come. That's heartwarming." The festival is also making gains in overall attendance, going from a couple of thousand in 1999 to more than double last year. Agmon says that, this year, the age spread will also grow. "Until now, most of the people who came to the festival were 40 and over. If we want change we have to address the younger generations. They are our future." Still, Lo Bashamayim isn't quite everyone's plate of gefilte fish. "The religious people that come are modern, more open kippot-srugot [knitted kipa] Jews," Agmon continues. "The haredi community just isn't interested. We have contacted some of their leaders but, so far, they haven't responded. I'm still hopeful they will eventually." The inclusion of Yossi Sarid, known for his anti-religious stance, on the festival speaker list is something of a surprise. Not to Rabbi Lau: "Yes, Sarid has made some strident anti-religious statements in the past, but what I really can't abide is people who oppose religion and a religious way of life while ignoring the literary and traditional sources. You've got to open a book and read where it all comes from. You have to reach an informed opinion, not just reject religion outright. Yossi Sarid is a learned man, connected to his Jewish heritage." Lau feels the lack of knowledge about and allegiance to Jewish heritage spells trouble on a grander scale. "The whole of Israel has to refer to the common ground of our heritage. Our problem is a lack of cultural identity. Our enemies are beginning to see this, and it cripples us as a nation." Politics may sometimes encroach on debate and dialogue, Lau says, but it is addressed in a constructive manner. "It is not a matter, for example, of who supports and who opposes the idea of a Greater Israel. The question is whether we recognize ourselves as Jewish." Details at