LimmudLA 2009 Report II

Part One

SATURDAY 3 pm. I walk up and down the corridors looking through peepholes at the various classes.

It’s not Torah I seek, it’s visceral human contact. I want to make friends. I want a wife. Most of all, I need a new employer for my writing skills. God and prayer is all well and good, and companionship is very nice even when it’s not erotic, but I’ve got to make a few quid. Who can I suck up to?

I wonder — where are the cool people hanging out? They’re probably in someone’s private room and they’re saying to each other, "Glad we ditched that loser Luke Ford." They’re drinking alcohol and transgressing the Torah in all sorts of delightful ways while yelping, "I’m glad Luke Ford can’t put this on his blog" and "Blog This! Luke Ford!" and "Stick this where your blog don’t shine, Luke Ford!" and "Luke Ford you suck!"

I end up in Rabbi Mark Diamond’s class on "Texts They Never Taught Us In Hebrew School."

I sit beside two hot chicks I’ve wanted to chat up all conference but two minutes after I sit down, they get up and leave.

I must get rid of that "Loser!" sign on my forehead.

I take a nap with a new friend.

"We have to 613 it!" she says.

"Of course," I reply.

"Totally shomer!" she says.

"I wouldn’t have it any other way."

"Separate beds."

"Separate beds."

"I don’t want you to touch me."

"I don’t want to touch you. What would be a few minutes of physical bliss compared to the true joy available in the afterlife?"

Dinner. I make new friends. I feel happy.

I go to the havdalah ceremony. I smell the rosemary. I chant the chants. I sing the songs.

I join the dance. We spin around and around, faster and faster, we’re so out of control that women have joined our circle. Oh my, I’m dancing with a woman. Hope the rabbis can’t see me.

This is bliss. This is pure bliss. I’m no longer worried about hanging out with the cool kids. I feel one with my people. I stretch my arms out and embrace my fellow Jews, gay and straight, Reform and Orthodox.

The dance goes on and on. This is the highlight of the conference. The joy is infectious.

Afterwards, I pop upstairs to grab my pen and notebook and hit the latest class by British Orthodox rabbi Gideon Sylvester: "The Moral Limits of Outreach to Assimilated Jews: How important is it to reach out to assimilated Jews to try to renew their interest and engagement with Judaism? If it is important, then at what price should we do it? May we compromise their autonomy and our integrity to win back more souls for Judaism? In this session, we will look at some of the sources for the idea of outreach and some of the texts that examine its moral limits."

Rabbi Sylvester is a hoot. Is it moral to be this funny and still frum?

He tells about a bloke he knew in Jerusalem who’d position himself at the Wall and pick up on spiritual seekers and channel them to a yeshiva. He’d ask them for the time and other questions as a pretext for sending them towards Torah. Rabbi Sylvester asks us if that is OK.

I shoot up my hand. "I use lies to pick up women," I say. "I see nothing wrong with asking a woman for the time or ask her for directions or ask her other such questions if you are going to use that opportunity to connect with her. If that is OK for picking up chicks, then how much more so is it OK to do it for Torah."

There’s shocked silence in the room of holy Jews.

"Are you married, Levi?" asks Rabbi Sylvester.

"No," I reply. "And I don’t know why."

"Well, folks, if Levi tells you he’s a multi-millionaire or offers you some investment deal, I might advise you to be cautious."

I feel like a cad. How could I have been so vulgar and so honest in such a holy setting?

Oy, the shame I bring Jews.

After class, I spot a female acquaintance from shul who told me yesterday that I seemed happy.

"Do you have the time?" I ask.

She goes for her watch but it is not these worldly details I seek. It is the bliss that can only come from unity with the Godhead. She is but a path to the one true world. Oh, how can I get this across most effectively? Is it OK to lie?

Rabbi Sylvester was shocked this morning that there was no prayer for the Queen. Then he found out that the States broke away from the Empire a few years ago.

Everyone in the class says it is bad to use deception to turn Jews on to Torah. But everyone in the class is Modern Orthodox or even less religious and they don’t proselytize. Only the ultra-Orthodox proselytize Judaism to Jews. The Modern Orthodox are too busy making a living. It’s all very well and good for them to look down their surgically-adjusted noses at proselytizing techniques, it’s just like smug marrieds looking down on pick-up techniques.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky says he’s wary of pushing greater ritual observance on those whose families it might wreck as well as on those who are mentally ill. If they’re already OCD, Orthodox Judaism would be like giving alcohol to an alcoholic.

Rabbi Sylvester says we shouldn’t prey on those who are emotionally unstable.

Michal from JConnectLA says she doesn’t use the term "kiruv" (to bring close) because it implies that she’s closer to HaShem than you are and that you need to change.

Rabby Sylvester cites the Talmudic text about staying far away from falsehood. Very smug. Wish there were a few scholars here who would contend that most of Orthodoxy’s foundational beliefs are false. How is that being far away from falsehood?

I love a good fight. I hate the smug.

Smug, smug, smug. Smug Marrieds. Smug Orthodox. Smuggies who look down on me. Smug them! I’ll smug them up on my blog and go all Hebrew gangster flashing signs to my home boys in the blogosphere. I’m the Meyer Lansky of bloggers and I’ll outlast them all.

Rabbi Sylvester talks about religious Jewish women in Israel doing national service in a remote area of Israel where some secular guys want the girls to teach them Torah.

So the girls inquired of a rabbi and he said it was permitted. Yes, the boys were learning Torah from impure motives, but if they got some Torah inside of them, it might purify them.

Rabbi Sylvester says the Rebbe was against "outreach" but was for teaching Torah widely.

9 pm. The comedy festival features Avram Mandell, Gerry Katzman, Rabbi Simcha Levenberg and Mark Schiff.

Avram: "The problem with having a Hebrew name is that every time you meet someone, they want to tell you about every Jew they’ve ever known."

"Friday morning, I got to do a set for hotel staff and LimmudLA leaders. I got to explain some of the differences between Jews and Christians. We don’t believe in Jesus…except for driving down the 405 during rush hour."

Avram explains the Shabbos elevator. "There’s a law in the Talmud that says you are not allowed to use electricity on Shabbat. But if it happens to be running already, you can use it. If you are walking with your family and you happen to back into closet and that closet happens to go up to your floor, you’re allowed to use it."

LimmudLA boasts "Shabbos Friendly Bathrooms." What’s a Shabbos-Friendly Bathroom? Avram explains that it is a place where after you do your business, the toilet yells "Yasher Koach!"

Rabbi Simcha Levenberg explains we’re the only religion with our own aisle in the grocery store. "The non-Jews must think we live on Kedem grape juice, gefilter fish and yartzheit candles."

"Anyone here pagan?"

Nobody raises their hand.

Gerry Katzman says he supports reparations. "Three thousand years ago, we were in Egypt. Where’s Egypt? It’s in Africa. The black man was the man. Let me ask you a question: What’s harder? Building pyramids or lifting cotton?"

Oooooh.

Pico-Robertson’s Mark Schiff is the final comic. "I drove down here in 40 minutes," he says.

He talks about how confusing this convention must be for the hotel workers. "They hired all these extra operators and yet nobody’s calling down for room service."

Jews aren’t going outside. "A family with 17 children doesn’t happen with exercising."

"You know you’re not doing well in life when you’re returning things to 99c stores."

"Do you ever notice how mothers always have a ‘splitting’ headache? Wouldn’t come from yelling all day?"

"When people say, ‘The last thing I want to do is hurt you.’ That means it’s on the list."

"Being married is like living on the floor of the senate. Every day, a new law is being passed. My wife says, ‘From now on, no socks on the floor or there’s no dinner. I’m not your mother.’

"I know you’re not my mother. My mother’s very nice to me. She’d pick those socks up and make me a sandwich."

At Matisyahu’s concert Saturday night, I feel excited that such a prominent Jew was gracing up with his talents but I can not connect to his music. There is an element of rap music to it that I just don’t get. I look around the room at all the happy Jews swaying to his music and I wonder if the older folks, those my age and older, truly enjoyed Matisyahu as much as they appeared, or did they feel pressure to fit in and be cool and ride with the music? Up front, the rosh yeshiva of Shalhevet, Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach and his wife, gently swayed to the music. Do they genuinely dig it? They look happy.

I wonder if the frum girls will take off their sheitls and throw them at Matisyahu. Frum Jews Gone Wild!

At the concert, I put my notebook down with my program guide. When I return to them 15 minutes later, my program guide has been stolen. I go to the Help Desk and try to get another one but I’m told there aren’t any.

I wander around without a guide for 22 hours.

At 1 a.m. Sunday, Matisyahu retakes the stage and does "No woman, no cry."

I am a bad man for writing this, but I often walk into a session during LimmudLA and feel like the most powerful man in the room. I’m not presenting. I’m not asking questions. I’m not giving opinions. I am just chronicling the story of LimmudLA. Sure, the Los Angeles Times will write about LimmudLA and the Jewish Journal and the rest of the conventional media, but it will be my account that will be the most powerful and that will touch people the most deeply. Everyone else will write in black-and-white, but if you want the color and excitement of LimmudLA, you’ll have to come here. Everyone else will quote the organizers and a few sanitized bits from the conference, I’ll take you into the boardrooms and the bedrooms of the Costa Mesa Hilton.

I may be a rebel without a shul, I may be the black sheep, I may be the one you love to hate, but I’ve got the blog that grabs Los Angeles Jewry by the neck and shakes it hard! It doesn’t matter if you read me or not. Every word I write goes into the universe and changes its vibration.

Sunday 1 a.m. Friends lets me crash with them. They come in at 2:30 a.m. Nobody snores. We get up at 8 a.m. A decent night’s sleep.

11:30 a.m. Filmmakers David N. Weiss, Ruth Broyde-Sharone and Jeff Astrof talk about what inspires them. David reads a Rebbe Nachman story ("Never Lose Hope") that taught him the importance of projecting happiness to his family. They don’t need to be burdened by his troubles at work.

David: "About 45 minutes into Shabbos, we’re enjoying ourselves. And that happened because I faked it. Because I’m a big fat liar."

"My wife stopped seeing me as the guy who needs propping up. Instead, it’s ‘Thank God he’s home.’ And I feel like, ‘She needs me! Thank God! I’m important.’ That makes me smile."

I don’t find listening to other people’s troubles exhausting. I find it exciting. I feel like I’m trusted and I’m worthy of being confided in.

David and Jeff are succinct and funny. Ruth is wordy and earnest.

David: "When you are hired in this business, they’re hiring you in part because they like being around you."

Jeff talks about divine intervention in his life. In sixth grade, a new girl came to the school named Theresa Truesdale. He prayed that she would like him. He never spoke to her. Two days later, there was a rumor going around the school that she liked him. "This is incredible. We celebrate lesser holidays than this…. That was my relationship with God. I could ask Him for things and He would make it happen. I still believe it to a certain extent. It was a one-way relationship. Sometimes it worked, Theresa Truesdale, and sometimes it didn’t. My grandmother died horribly of cancer."

Jeff cites teachings from Rabbi David Aaron of Isralight and Rabbi Akiva Tatz.

"We went to a Shabbaton called Arachim. Arachim was wonderful. It was like a nuclear blast of Torah and the Torah is true. The whole framework was proving that the Torah comes from God. Some stuff was really resonant. Other stuff was like, if you relax your eyes over certain sections of Torah, certain words pop out. I think we do that with cereal boxes. The big one is that we were the only religion in history that had a mass revelation. That made it really hard to lie about it. Your grandfather said, I was there. It would be difficult to get people to lie about that. We still tell the Passover story today.

"We’re driving home. I’m thinking, this is really cool. Maybe I’ll wear a baseball cap to work. I call my father. It was the first time we really kept Shabbat. I tell him that I’m coming from this amazing seminar. I tell him that it was about proving the Torah was true. It slowly began dawning on him that this was an Orthodox group I was talking about. He said, ‘Do not get co-opted by the Orthodox. They are a cult. They are trying to brainwash you.’

"My father’s father was Orthodox. He wore a black hat. They had a different kind of relationship. They didn’t talk. There was not a lot of love passed down. There was no reason for my father to be observant. My father was just slamming the Orthodox. I said, ‘But Dad, your parents were Orthodox.’ He said, ‘They absolutely were not.’ I said, ‘Your father went to an Orthodox shul.’ He said, ‘That’s because it was the only one that was close enough to walk to.’ I said, ‘Your mother lit the candles.’ He said, ‘But only on Friday night.’

"That was easy to dismiss. What was harder to dismiss — I talked to a good friend of mine who was a non-Orthodox clergy person. Very faithfully not Orthodox. One of my best friends. I was telling him about Arachim and joking about my father. I was on the phone going to work in Studio City. There was silence. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said, ‘I’m really disappointed in you. Here you took this whole weekend to learn that the Torah comes from God and you never took the time with me to teach you that it doesn’t."

"As I’m driving, I feel like I’m shrinking. He’s going, ‘I can show you texts. I can show you reasons why the Torah is not from God.’ And this is from a guy who is a religious guy in his field.

"At that very moment, a white jeep Cherokee crossed in front of me. The license plate on the jeep is ‘Halacah.’ It tugged on me. At that moment, I stopped hearing my friend… For me, it was God saying it’s Me. Turn on your radio and look around you. From that moment on, I daven for a parking space. I thank God for a parking space… I can always pull up right in front. The meter’s always broken. It’s great. For nothing else, you should put on tefillin.

"That experience for me solidified… It made me open my eyes. It made me turn on my receiver."

"I truly believe that everything that happens is supposed to happen and is what is best for you."

"Every time I turn down that radio knob [to God], my life is worse because I’m anxious and not connected. I’m tired. Turn up that radio knob really loud and there’s nothing that can stop you."

There’s loud applause.

I ask the first question for Jeff: "What you’re describing is that Judaism is magic."

Jeff: "I don’t think it is Judaism is magic. I’ve prayed for a lot of things that have not come true and I’ve looked back and can see that’s why. You can see the hand of God there at all times. Things happen for a reason. You miss a flight. My wife taught me that."

Jeff and David both have gorgeous wives and beautiful children. This God-thing seems to be really working for them.

Jeff: "Knowing that I’m praying for that connection means I’m part of a bigger picture. Hollywood destroys your ego. There’s always someone telling you that you are not good enough."

Ruth: "I don’t think it’s magic, but when you are doing something in God’s service, there is a synchronicity that happens that can not be explained in any other way."

Ruth describes herself as an "interfaith activist." She talks about being at the session "Seven Levels of Laziness."

"I meant to go," quips Jeff.

The least appetizing session of the conference was for teens and entitled, in part, "Masturbation, Manischewitz…"

That’s one way to put kids off the vice of self-abuse — associate it with a sickening wine.

Sunday night, I find an abandoned program guide and a copy of Lisa Klug’s book "Cool Jews" in Pacific Ballroom IV. After no one claims them after a couple of hours, I take them. If they are yours, let me know. It is a mitzvah to return lost property.

A woman yelled at me a lot over Limmud. "How come your sexy are so messy?" she’d say.

She meant my tzitzit.

"No one else’s sexy are messy. You need to straighten your sexy."

Perhaps you’d help me?

Gidi Grinstein talks about the Jews: "We have never been more powerful and more vulnerable than we are today because we are concentrated in the U.S. and Israel."

He says that in 1980, the Israeli government accounted for 84% of all jobs in Israel (the only equivalent to that was in the former Soviet Union). Today the figure is 46%.

Daniel Reisel gives a class on "Lessons from the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza." He played a moving 36-minute documentary. Some settlers call the IDFwho’ve come to evacuate them, "Nazis." They scream at the soldiers, "How much are they paying you?"

"They’re chanting the same slogans," says a soldiers. "They’re brainwashed."

"You make it easier for me to do my job when you call me a Nazi," another soldier says to a settler.

I sit in one room waiting for a panel discussion, then the moderator tells me, "Nothing in this room is to be blogged. It’s like Vegas. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."

I get up and leave.

Close to midnight, I get into an intense discussion with an academic. "Can ideologues produce great art?" is my question. The test would be to compare the work of artists when they are ideologically committed to some transcendental cause and when they are not committed.

I unload my frustrations that academics use too many unnecessary words. They write things such as, "The way in which" when "in which" is almost never needed.

I’m told that academics are wedded to precision but I fail to see how unnecessary words makes speech more precise.

I see Truth as my goal. I want my blog to be as intimate as a husband and wife in bed. Orthodox Judaism erects huge obstacles to my doing this, but at the same time, better than any other system I know, it creates safe spaces where people with things in common can talk honestly with each other.

Part One

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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