Notes from LimmudLA 2011 [VIDEO]

If it was a bit easier than usual to find a seat or a parking spot at your synagogue over Presidents’ Day weekend, you may be able to thank the organizers of the LimmudLA conference. More than 500 Jews from Los Angeles and beyond traveled to the Hilton in Costa Mesa for the fourth annual gathering of cross-denominational learning. LimmudLA is one of 50 annual Limmud conferences worldwide, all of them modeled after the United Kingdom Limmud, begun in 1980.

This year’s conference, which began midday Friday and ended midday Monday,  featured more than 200 sessions led by 125 different presenters, including rabbis, artists, educators, academics and other Jews with regular jobs and something to teach. Some presenters were flown in from around the globe (but even they are not paid for teaching), but the majority of the work that made LimmudLA happen was done by volunteers, who are also participants. “Volunticipants” is the neologism favored by the conference’s organizers.

No single person can fully experience the variety and diversity of LimmudLA. Jews of all affiliations — and no affiliation — chose from a dizzying array of lectures, films and workshops. Yet certain moments — the musical Havdalah service on Saturday night, a packed stand-up comedy show that included very young amateurs and seasoned professionals — were experienced collectively.

Two Views of a Contested Land, One Conference Room

Just after noon on Sunday, Shoshana Hikind, executive vice president of Jerusalem Chai/American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, told an audience of about 10 about the work her organization has done to help bring dozens of Jewish families to what she referred to as “the so-called Muslim and Christian Quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem.”

“We have brought this area back to life,” Hikind said of the group’s work to insert Jewish families into places like Kidmat Tziyon, more widely known by the Arabic name that the majority of the area’s residents use, Abu Dis. “And why not?” Hikind said. “These are our roots!”

Less than 24 hours later, three people gathered in the same conference room to hear Caryn Aviv, a professor from University of Colorado, Boulder, talk about alternative Jewish travel in Israel and the West Bank.

Aviv described two programs that take Jews on intentionally unsettling journeys: The Encounter program brings American Jewish leaders to listen to the stories of Palestinians living in the West Bank; the more marginal (and, Aviv said, explicitly anti-Zionist) Zochrot program takes Israelis to destroyed Palestinian villages and other spaces within the pre-1967 borders of the state of Israel that recall the history of the 1948 Israeli-Arab conflict that Palestinians refer to as the Nakhba (the catastrophe).

Aviv, a sociologist, talked about Encounter as a program inspired by Jewish ideas of justice. Hikind, the wife of New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, talked about the establishment and maintenance of Jewish power and control over Jerusalem. It would be hard to find two more diametrically opposed presentations — and yet Limmud was the venue for both.

Story continues after the jump.

Video by Jonah Lowenfeld. Edited by Jeffrey Hensiek.

Teens at Limmud

All Limmud conferences feature presentations from out-of-towners — New York comedian Joel Chasnoff’s performance on Saturday night was his seventh appearance at a Limmud — but they depend primarily on locals to lead sessions. This year’s younger Limmudniks weren’t exempt from this expectation.

Just before sunset on Saturday, two seniors from Milken Community High School led a discussion about whether morality could be achieved without God, one of about a dozen sessions led by teens. Participants in the lively discussion included two UCLA undergraduates, a few students from YULA and Shalhevet high schools and about a dozen from Milken.

LimmudLA aims to be intergenerational, so there were adults in that room as well. And the teenagers didn’t restrict themselves to sessions that were explicitly teen-friendly: two 11th-graders from Leo Baeck Temple’s Hebrew school participated in a session about the halachic and legal questions surrounding brain death. On Sunday evening, a band made up of kids ages 10 to 16 played a set that included songs by the Doors, Debbie Friedman and a rendition of “Sweet Caroline” to serenade conference co-chair Caroline Kelly.

You Wrote That?

A pleasant evening of Israeli standards at a concert with composer Nurit Hirsch transformed itself into an intimate glimpse into Jewish cultural history.

Hirsch has composed more than a thousand Israeli songs, among them the 1978 Eurovision-winning “Abanibi,” the camp favorite “Ba’Shana Ha’ba’ah,” (“Yes They Do!”) and the musical “Sallah Shabati.”

Hirsch sat at her baby grand in a small conference room, with more than 100 people crammed in. She shared stories of collaboration with Israel’s poets and top vocalists, and her own musical path through modern Israeli history.

“I am going to sing a song that everyone knows, but no one knows that I wrote it,” Hirsch said toward the end of her concert.

It took only a few chords for everyone to start singing along to “Oseh Shalom” — yes, the “Oseh Shalom” that has achieved both folk and liturgical status. She won third prize at the Chassidic Song Festival with that song in 1969. And she sang it in Costa Mesa in 2011.

Two Heads Are Better

Mechitzah minyan? Liberal Egalitarian? Traditional Egalitarian? Maybe Shabbat yoga or a 12-step meeting?

Shabbat morning seemed like a good time for “My Time,” a Torah session using chavruta, where 30 study partners used biblical, rabbinic and contemporary texts as a jumping-off point for discussions about multitasking, staying in the moment and over-scheduling. For around 15 years, Limmud UK has been producing an annual chavruta source book, with textual sources as diverse as the Babylonian Talmud and Klingon proverbs.

This year, Limmudniks from 12 time zones volunteered to compile a source book that debuted in December in the U.K. The batch of 100-page spiral-bound books then traveled in the suitcases of Limmud groupies to New York in January, made it to Los Angeles this month, and are now headed for Philadelphia, Boston and around the world.

Recovery and Renewal

The more than 40 performances, films and artistic sessions at LimmudLA shift the focus to the heart and offer a much-needed break for the mind.

“Freedom Song,” performed late Sunday afternoon at LimmudLA, starred residents and alumni of Beit T’Shuvah in Culver City. Founded 25 years ago, Beit T’Shuvah is the only Jewish residential rehab facility in the country, making Jewish ideas and practice central to the recovery process.

“Freedom Song,” a powerful and emotional musical, juxtaposes a 12-step meeting on one half of the stage with a family seder on the other, exploring the pain and struggle of the recovery process and the rupture addiction causes in a family.

The production, which travels the city and country on request, asks audiences to hold up a mirror to our own behaviors. To what are we slaves? What lies do we tell ourselves to justify small misdeeds, and how do we mistreat those whom we love?

As a conversation with the cast following the production was coming to a close, a cast member brought out a “birthday” cake. David, who had been working the sound board, was celebrating his 365th day of sobriety. For this song, the audience and the cast sang together.

LimmudLA, 1 A.D. (After Debbie)

Leading the liberal egalitarian services on Friday night, Avram Mandell made the weekend’s first reference to the late Debbie Friedman. With a guitar strapped to his chest and a smile on his face, Mandell, the director of education at Leo Baeck Temple, paused before the “Ve-shamru” prayer to remember having seen Friedman and UCLA Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller sing it together at a previous LimmudLA. The moment, Mandell said, embodied the spirit of Limmud, because you had a Reform Jewish woman and an Orthodox male rabbi singing biblical verses to the tune written by Rabbi Moshe Rothblum, rabbi emeritus of the Conservative Adat Ari El in Valley Village. “And Rabbi Rothblum was in the room,” Mandell added. Friedman, a resident of Orange County whose final performance was in December 2010 at Limmud in the U.K. —  had been a mainstay of LimmudLA, and her absence this year was deeply felt by many.

Artists Converge After ‘The Passion’


Christian children wearing their Sunday best for last week’s Easter services understandably could forget, amidst their Easter egg hunts, that the Last Supper of Jesus was a Passover seder.

But in this season of Easter and Passover, connections between the holidays has inspired an art exhibit showcasing Christian and Jewish artists motivated by religious themes. The exhibit is housed in downtown Los Angeles at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Its aspirations and the artworks themselves are impressive, though the effort has suffered from uneven presentation of the artwork.

The “Passion/Passover” exhibit could be viewed as a positive response to Jewish-Catholic tensions surrounding last year’s “The Passion of the Christ” by filmmaker Mel Gibson. His film was praised by Catholic church officials, though many Jewish leaders said the film unreasonably cast Jews as villains.

The exhibit’s 14 artists — seven Jewish and seven Christian — have displayed some 23 pieces interpreting each faith’s respective Passover and Easter themes.

“People began to see there were comparisons between the two holy seasons,” said Gordon Fuglie, director of the Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University.

Featured Jewish artists include Santa Barbara-based Laurie Gross. Her “Miriam and the Women” is a dozen folded and twisted strips of fabric that call to mind a tallit.

“A number of the pieces that I’ve done use biblical woman,” said Gross, who described “Miriam” as “part of a journey of my Jewish heritage. Miriam is one of the women that we look to as a role model — of leadership, speaking her mind, speaking out.”

The exhibit grouped art pieces by religion, with Jewish art grouped together and Christian art grouped in separate clusters.

As a result, in Gross’ view, “there wasn’t anything integrated about the exhibit.”

Still, the exhibit displayed the work of Jewish women, she said. And the art, taken as a body of work, shows how, “we’re trying very hard as women today to pull those voices out of text. Women are writing contemporary Midrash,” she said. “I feel what I do as an artist is visual Midrash. That gives us a role in carrying on the tradition, filling in the blanks.”

The pieces by Christian artists in “Passion/Passover” are noticeably larger — such as the crucifixion watercolor by the exhibit’s co-curator, the Rev. Michael Tang, the chair of the art and art history department at Loyola Marymount University.

“Catholics particularly are used to a tradition of commissions of large-scale works,” said Ruth Weisberg, dean of USC’s School of Fine Arts and a member of the cathedral’s arts and furnishings committee. “All the Catholic artists but one [had] done very large-scale work. The Jewish artists had all chosen smaller works.

The lesser-sized Jewish artworks created a sort of metaphor set within the hugeness of the Catholic cathedral, suggesting how the world’s 12 millions Jews live among hundreds of millions of Christians.

UCLA art department chair Barbara Drucker, who contributed her work, “Calendar Notation,” said that unlike some of the pieces by Jewish artists, the Christian artworks were not “questioning the existence of God.”

Many of the large pieces by Christian artists are displayed in the cathedral’s chapel-like alcoves, including one with walls and lighting akin to a traditional art gallery. The smaller Jewish pieces are more likely to be found in less well-lit spaces — at least four of the Jewish artists were unhappy with the lighting and presentation.

No disrespect was intended, said those involved with the exhibit. Some exhibit issues simply couldn’t be helped, such as dealing with a large Christian piece on loan from a museum. The artwork’s space and lighting requirement mandated that it go into a large alcove.

“The works in the Christ-themed room were larger and more monumental,” Fuglie said. “For the next time around, somebody really needs to understand how the space works.”

USC’s Weisberg said the cathedral’s arts and furnishings committee, “is concerned and wants better lighting. This is their first time out with contemporary art in the cathedral.”

Financial backing for the exhibit featured a pronounced interfaith theme, with support from philanthropists, including Roy Disney, Eli Broad and Stanley Gold.

Despite the glitches, artist Deborah Lefkowitz said she was “quite interested in the resonance my work might have when exhibited in a space devoted to prayer.”

“Passion/Passover: Artists of Faith Interpret Their Holy Days” runs through May 1 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 555 W. Temple Street, Los Angeles. For more information, call (213) 680-5200.


Baker Whips Up Cakes for the Kosher

Vicki Hulbert wants to change kosher weddings: She would like people to start thinking about wedding cakes a little more seriously.

Wedding cakes — the real, one-of-a-kind, no-holds-barred, bedecked in sugar flowers, encircled with candy ribbons, multitiered, frosted extravaganzas — have rarely been a must-have-item at kosher weddings. They are very expensive, starting at $4 or $5 a slice. Kosher consumers were just as happy with no cake or a faux wedding cake — plastic tiers for display but sliced sheet cake to eat.

Hulbert wants to change all that.

Her wedding cake company, Bridal Sweets Cakes, recently acquired kosher certification. While most of Hulbert’s business is dairy cakes, frosted with buttercream made of real butter and filled with ganaches made of real cream, she recently branched out into pareve (neither meat nor dairy) cakes that can be served at a kosher wedding with a meat meal.

“You have the same problem that you have in the kosher market that you have in the secular market: That wedding cakes taste bad, and pareve cakes taste worse,” said Hulbert, who was a graphic designer before she started baking professionally. “So for the pareve recipes, I did a lot of product development and a lot of experimenting, because I didn’t want someone to have a slice of pareve cake and say, ‘This is pareve cake.’ It has to taste like a regular product.”

To accomplish this, Hulbert made adjustments to her cake, filling and frosting recipes to make up for the fact that even the best margarine will never be butter, and the best pareve whip will never be cream. Her pareve Italian meringue buttercream has the addition of cocoa butter, which adds more body to the frosting, her pareve devil’s food cake substitutes nondairy creamer and vinegar for buttermilk and instead of cream in the ganache filling, Hulbert uses Mocha Mix.

“If you use a really good chocolate, then you can’t tell the difference,” she said.

Hulbert prides herself on using only the best quality, most natural ingredients, which is why she won’t use fake whipped cream and will only use fresh, seasonal fruit to decorate cakes. Unlike other wedding cake maestros, like Sylvia Weinstock in New York, who make cakes for people all over the country, Hulbert only works for Southern California clients, because she wants to keep her cakes as fresh as possible.

But even with such gastronomic pleasures as pareve dark-chocolate cake with dulce de leche filling and raspberry ganache or lemon cake with wild-strawberry filling, all covered with rolled fondant and decorated to look like they belong in Martha Stewart Weddings, Hulbert still finds that the kosher community is slow to warm up to the idea.

“I don’t think the Orthodox community is quite in the frame of mind yet that having a nice cake or good cake is something they expect,” Hulbert said “There is a little bit of re-education that has to go on. But there is no reason that a kosher client can’t have a fabulous cake and the whole presentation.”

For more information on Bridal Sweets Cakes go to www.bridalsweetscakes.comor call (310) 373-1185.