Peninsula set to feast on Jewish learning

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

January is often a month of diet and exercise, following all that non-stop December holiday eating. But Peninsula Jews are whetting their appetites for one more feast: the Bureau of Jewish Education’s annual Feast of Jewish Learning and Peninsula Night of Jewish Unity.

More than 45 Jewish educators and 600 participants are expected to turn up Saturday, Jan. 27, at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills for classes, workshops, music and dancing, not to mention some serious shmoozing. The event is free.

Unlike the BJE’s Feast of Jewish Learning in other parts of the Bay Area, which goes on for days, this feast is an all-in-one-night Torah binge. Divided into two sessions, attendees come in with havdallah at 7 p.m. and go out with the oneg around 10:30 p.m. (unless they continue their shmoozefest in the parking lot).

In between, say organizers Rabbi Ari Cartun and Sharon Smith-Lenox, they will enjoy a 35-course banquet of Jewish knowledge on all manner of topics, presented by learned Jews from every denomination and point of view.

“It’s been my mission to get all Jews to see themselves connected,” says Cartun, who serves as rabbi of Palo Alto’s Congregation Etz Chayim. “We want to show them that we are one people, and that we can all show up for Jewish learning as equals.”

Smith-Lenox echoes the sentiment, adding, “At our feast we study, but even more it’s about everyone in the community coming together. Why did we all go to rock concerts? To hear music, but also to be together. [Feast attendees] are there to see all the other Jews.”

Just about every South Bay rabbi — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and independent — will offer a class, as will a wide array of community leaders, thinkers, movers and shakers.

Traveling Jewish Theatre’s managing director Devra Aarons will teach a class on Arthur Miller’s hidden Jewish undertones in “Death of a Salesman.” Astrophysicist Joel Primack and his wife, Nancy Abrams, will expound upon the secrets of the universe. Chabad of Palo Alto Rabbi Yosef Levin and his wife, Dena, will conduct a class called “Demystifying the Mikvah.”

Sensing a pattern? The theme for this year’s feast is “Telling Secrets, Revealing Mysteries.”

This is Smith-Lenox’s third go-round coordinating the Feast, and each year she tries to add something new. For 2007, she’s programmed several classes in Hebrew for the burgeoning Israeli community in and around the Peninsula. That’s in addition to several Russian-language classes.

“We have people in Chassidic dress to people in the most modern dress,” says Cartun of the Feast’s typically overflow crowd. “We can’t hold any more people than we get. When the new JCC [at the Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life] is built and we move there, the event will morph again to a bigger phenomenon.”

He’s probably right, but it’s hard to picture the Feast any bigger. Not only are more than 600 people expected to show, but 23 Jewish organizations signed up as co-sponsors, including synagogues, day schools and agencies.

For Lenox-Smith, a former corporate exec in the high-tech field, staging the Feast is a labor of love. “It reflects what I do personally in my Jewish life,” she says. “Three years ago I decided to get active. Ari [Cartun] got me going chairing the education committee at Etz Chayim. From there I volunteered at [To Life!] street fair, and then I found myself organizing the feast.”

With the profusion of intriguing class topics, this year’s theme of secrets and mysteries clearly appealed to the teachers — maybe a little too much.

Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of Palo Alto’s Congregation Emek Beracha will teach a class titled “The Best Kept Secret in Palo Alto.” When asked exactly what that secret is, the Orthodox rabbi says, “We would love to let you know, but at this point, if we told you, we’d have to kill you.”

The Bureau of Jewish Education Feast of Learning and ninth annual Peninsula Night of Jewish Unity takes place 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27 at Congregation Beth Am, 226790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. Admission is free. Information: (650) 852-3501 or www.paloaltojcc.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.