Britain’s Jewish Christmas

Limmud, like the idyllic version of Christmas, is also a family affair, sometimes taking on the qualities of summer camp in blustery December.

Limmud 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Limmud 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Christmas in Britain is a legal holiday devoid of faith – unless you’re Jewish.
The British TV channels seek British hearts not so much by sending film crews to churches or monitoring children singing hymns, but by analyzing and broadcasting the best Christmas movies and songs.
According to British media, the stars of Christmas were Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Jimmy Stewart and Mariah Carey – and not Jesus, Mary and the three wise men.
Beyond who sold how many songs or movies, the analysts seem to disagree regarding whether it was a victory for “White Christmas” and It’s a Wonderful Life, or for Die Hard – which qualifies as a Christmas movie in Britain because Bruce Willis goes to a Christmas party before battling terrorists.
It is not clear how many British Christians go to Christmas parties, but it is clear that not too many go to church. Of about 25 million baptized in Britain’s Anglican Church, only a million go to church on Sundays, according to the church. A similar falling off in synagogue attendance has beset Britain’s Jews.
But many British Jews use Christmastime as a period to shop for Jewishness, by going to the annual conference known by the Hebrew word “Limmud” – study.
And the stats are impressive: 1,102 sessions, 25 films, 55 panel debates and 30,000 meals served to about 2,500 people – roughly 1 percent of Britain’s 250,000 Jews.
It is a celebration of Jewish peoplehood held at a British university campus whose students are on Christmas vacation, and this year it was at the University of Warwick, a town that boasts of one Britain’s oldest and most beautiful castles (with moat).
Amid flailing ice-storms and gale-force winds, while Christians hunkered down to eat minced pudding, watch movies and listen to the queen’s Christmas speech, many of the Jews – including whole families with baby carriages – braved the harsh weather and came out of their shells in every sense.
Jews in Britain tend to try to stay under the radar, and they usually succeed. They do not display their Jewishness or make a big deal about Hanukka or other things.
But on Christmas many Jews come out of the closet at the Limmud conference.
Many, including women, wear kippot and take classes ranging from Jewish musicology and Talmud to Israeli films and politics and Jewish feminism. As befits a Jewish conference, more questions are asked than are necessarily answered.
Limmud, like the idyllic version of Christmas, is also a family affair, sometimes taking on the qualities of summer camp in blustery December. Whole families, equipped with baby carriages, come to the conference to hear educators from Britain, America, Israel and other countries.
Britain’s chief rabbi was there, and so was Natan Sharansky and many more. I gave two talks on terror and was a panelist on a discussion about Jews in US politics.
The Jewish film society also showed the movie The Gatekeepers for which I was a commentator.The Gatekeepers and the way it was featured at the conference raise some important issues not just about how a democratic society fights terror but also about how conferences about Israel and the Jews sometimes allow themselves to be used against Israel and the Jews.
Real democracies ask tough questions about themselves, and this is especially a good Jewish quality, but Gatekeepers has more than a few elements of anti-Israel propaganda – combining real material with fabrications.
In the film several former heads of Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, accuse Israel and its elected leaders of crimes, while not being really confronted regarding their own complicity in these alleged crimes, their personal motives or their shortcomings.
The Gatekeepers might have been be a good launching point for discussing how democratic societies can fight terror in an ethical manner. In fact, it is a broadbased attack on Israel, on Israeli leaders, and on settlers.
That was good enough for a nomination for an Academy Award, or to get on a program at Limmud.
Such fare has become the regular diet at Israel studies conferences around the world, along with featuring speakers who say Israeli soldiers are murderers or who compare Israeli policies to South African apartheid.
Perhaps some of these conferences should invite some of the thousands of dark-skinned Eritreans, Somalis and Ugandans who clamber across jungles and deserts to get a taste of what sets Israel apart.
That too should be part of the menu and part of the conversation when Jews get together on Christmas and at other times of the year.
Jews meeting regularly to discuss aspects of Jewish life may not cure the ills of falling birth rates and rising intermarriage, but it is not a bad start for Jews to come together and think of themselves as part of one family. It is the kind of thing of which one does not see enough in America or Israel.
The writer is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, published by Threshold/ Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar-Ilan University, and is the Schusterman Visiting Professor at University of California, Irvine for 2013-2014.