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  • Tamra Wright

The Limmud Habit

Productivity and self-help gurus often suggest that everyone should do their own personal ‘annual review’ in December or early January. Set aside a good couple of hours and reflect, pen in hand, on questions like: What went well this year? What did I achieve? What lessons did I learn, and most importantly, what do I hope to do differently in the new year?

It is excellent advice which, for the most part, I have successfully ignored. But I have often done my own idiosyncratic version on a significant date in the Jewish calendar: Limmud Thursday.

In normal, non-Covid times, Limmud Festival is an intense, in-person experience, where even card-carrying introverts like me enjoy taking part in a gathering of thousands of people during the week between Christmas and New Year. Thursday is always the final day of the event, with sessions ending at mid-day. I spend my Limmud Thursday packing up, going to one or two carefully chosen final sessions, saying good-bye to friends I don’t expect to see again until next year, travelling home (back to ‘reality’), and unpacking, all the while asking myself: What went well? What could I have done better? What did I learn? What do I want to do differently next year?

Today is December 30th and, in normal times, it would have been Limmud Thursday. This year, for the second time and for obvious reasons, Limmud Festival went virtual. It had all the hallmarks of a classic Limmud event: a friendly, welcoming atmosphere; a wide range of sessions presented by a mix of professional educators, performers, and amateur enthusiasts; opportunities for informal socialising and networking; and, for those who know what goes into such an event, a pervasive awareness that none of it would have been possible without the enthusiasm, hard work and dedication of the volunteers.

Virtual events have their advantages, from the trivial (no packing, no dinner queues, and one can attend sessions in their pj’s) to the transformative (more affordable, more accessible for those with mobility issues), but they can’t match the intensity of the real thing. The lack of in-person social contact is, of course, the biggest part of this, but I think it is also about geography: staying at home just doesn’t stimulate new ideas in the same way that a shift of context does.

For me, the last day of Limmud Festival 2021 (Tuesday) did spark a few reflections about future events, future teaching, the me-I-want-to-be next year, but the strange combination of physical exhaustion and intellectual excitement I usually experience on Limmud Thursday just didn’t happen.

With other presenters at Limmud Stockholm

What if Limmud went virtual permanently? Would I keep going? Would you?

What I am about to write surprises me: I am optimistic that we would. Those of us who have developed an emotional attachment to Limmud, with all its highs and lows, will keep coming back for more, even in an attenuated form, in the same way that we have kept in virtual touch with our friends and family when it hasn’t been possible to spend time with them in person. And those who only ever experience Limmud in its virtual form won’t know what they’re missing!

I would like to think, however, that one day it will again be safe for us to gather in our hundreds or thousands, and that when that time comes there will still be enough idealistic, enthusiastic people to volunteer their time and make it happen for the rest of us.

Limmud UK Panel (in real life!)

Meanwhile, my thinking about virtual Limmuds is shaped by BJ Fogg’s approach to habit formation. The best way to create new habits, Fogg argues, is to focus on tiny behaviours, so tiny that they sometimes seem ridiculous. If you want to improve your oral hygiene, start with the habit of flossing one tooth. That might seem silly, especially when Fogg tells you that a) you need to ‘celebrate’ after flossing one tooth (say ‘well done’ or ‘victory’ or give yourself a thumbs up); and b) that even once you start regularly flossing all your teeth, you can keep celebrating after doing just one tooth. That’s your tiny habit and you don’t raise the bar. Why not? Because one day you might feel like you don’t have the time or energy to floss all your teeth. You might even be tempted not to floss at all. But you’ve already successfully created a ‘tiny habit recipe’ (‘After I finish brushing my teeth, I will floss one tooth’) and ‘wired it in’ through celebration. Because flossing one tooth is so ridiculously easy, you won’t need much time, motivation, or energy to do it. So you do it even when tempted not to, you celebrate, and you’ve kept your flossing habit alive. No doubt tomorrow, the day after, or maybe next week, you’ll be back to a more serious flossing regime. Meanwhile, keep it tiny and keep celebrating.

I’m grateful to the Limmud team and all the presenters for enabling me to keep my Limmud habit alive through another pandemic year. (Not that I think of the virtual Limmud events as ‘tiny’ – just significantly smaller than the real-world thing.) Thanks everyone. I wish you all a happy Limmud Thursday, and many happy returns!

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