As part of a Partnership 2000 project designed to promote inter-denominational dialogue, we held a public festival the week before Shavuot. We had gotten frustrated with trying to attract people to informal discussion groups; while we had had some very lively and successful evening over the past few years, somehow the spark had gotten lost, the numbers dwindled, and there was a feeling of marching in place. We felt that perhaps we needed to go public, to create a splash, bringing a large number of people from different backgrounds together to study Torah in a safe, neutral environment.
We invested significant resources in advertising, with an eye-catching flyer distributed to every home in the area, large ads in local papers, articles in the press, and direct mail letters to the few hundred people who had ever attended any related program in the past. We decided to try to get past the why didnt you let anyone know syndrome, which we have heard ad nauseam. I thought we had succeeded, but sure enough, the week after the program when I mentioned its success to several friends, they had no idea what I was talking about.
Thursday afternoon: a childrens play, a musical trip to the Temple in Jerusalem; a lovely performance, esthetic, clever, light. Immensely enjoyed by those who attended - who were, alas, few in number, only about 20 kids plus some parents.
Thursday evening: the piece de resistance, a lecture by Meir Shalev on the Book of Ruth. Meir Shalev, a novelist, childrens writer, and satirical columnist, is one of the most popular writers in Israel. A hard-core secularist, he loves the Bible, and has developed a sort of literary-humanistic way of teaching it. He gave out copies and basically conducted a class on the book. The hall was standing room only (for us, about 180 people); we even had to operate a shuttle van to a remote parking lot, as the traffic overwhelmed little Shorashim. About 10% of the crowd was religious, judging by their headgear. His lecture was a bit canned, and he rushed out without taking questions, but the crowd loved it. What to me seemed like a perfectly natural and not very surprising way to read Ruth was, to Israelis who had studied it in high school, a revelation.
Friday morning: a lecture on feminist readings of the Bible, by Amnon Shapira, an orthodox kibbutznik and veteran professor at Bar Ilan University. He rambled a bit, and upset some of the feminists in the crowd, but made an interesting presentation. There were 60 participants, who stayed for a festive brunch and then broke up into three workshops: a class on the nature of the Oral Law, by a [secular woman] professor of Talmud at Haifa University; a midrash through movement workshop conducted by a young woman from an orthodox kibbutz; and a hands-on workshop on the traditional Jewish art of paper cutting.
Throughout the entire program, we got a constant stream of compliments and thank-yous, and when is the next one? and what is this place? and what else do you do here? etc. There was a festive, relaxed, atmosphere, people of a range of different backgrounds and ages and communities enjoying learning together. The experience reminded me of an important aspect of Israeli life that it is easy to forget in the religious wars here: as alienated as many secular Israelis have become from Jewish religion and tradition, there is a substratum of Israeli culture, shared by almost every Jew here, that is rooted in our classic texts. This entire festival was, after all, not based on current issues or on the intellectual or spiritual fad of the moment. It was based on the Bible -- yet it drew the largest crowd we have ever attracted. An anti-religious novelist and an orthodox scholar, whatever the chasm between their world-views, have that substratum in common, as did the entire audience regardless of their backgrounds or their degrees of Jewish observance. And if you say, Of course there was a crowd, you featured a very popular author, I will answer Thats just the point -- where else would it be considered perfectly natural to go out for an evening to hear such a popular author... teach a Bible class?