By Simon Yaffe
IF you are familiar with Limmud, then you will know its co-founder Clive Lawton.
And, even if you don’t know him personally, you will recognise him thanks to his trademark ponytail and beard — and open toe sandals.
“If you can wiggle your toes, you are a happier person,” Clive told me from his home in Bristol.
“I cut my hair every few years and it grows behind my back and looks after itself.
“It is strange in our community that if you let your hair touch your collar and wear sandals, people seem to think you have turned into Che Guevara!”
That individuality has played a major part in the 68-year-old’s life.
From implementing the teaching of the Holocaust on the National Curriculum to co-founding the Jewish education bonanza that is Limmud, and everything in between, Clive’s decades of service to the British Jewish community has been insurmountable.
It is all a long way from his early years in Ealing, West London, where he was raised by a Gibraltarian mother, Regina (nee Attias), and father, Clifford.
The Judaism in the Lawton home was driven by his mother, who was Sephardi — as was the food.
”Mum was the only person I knew at that time who knew what to do with an aubergine, if you could find one in London at that time,” Clive said.
“She also made her own spaghetti, which was a shock to people who thought it only came out of a tin.”
He donned his educational hat at a young age, introduced to Jewish Youth Study Groups by his rabbi, Sidney Silberg, and becoming its national chairman.
“My parents always insisted that we had won the lottery of life by being born Jewish,” Clive recalled.
“While my mother had come from Gibraltar, my father’s family had been in England for several generations.
“His Jewishness came out through his work with AJEX, as he had served with the British army in Gibraltar, where he had met my mum.
“His first name was actually Reginald, but when he married mum, he decided to use his middle name, Clifford.”
Clive read English literature at the University of York, where he became involved with both the general politics scene and the Inter-University Jewish Federation, the forerunner to the Union of Jewish students.
Back then, a young Clive, like many students at the time, was firmly committed to a left-wing ideology.
He said: “I was marching about with my Little Red Book and chucking bricks at the American embassy because I opposed the Vietnam War.
“Even then, the Maoists and Leninists did not speak nicely about Israel, so all this stuff with antisemitism and the Labour Party does not surprise me, because this view has existed on the hard left for years.
“When it comes to the economy, I am left of centre, but Jeremy Corbyn is a dreadful waste of space.”
Clive taught English and drama in Bicester, Oxfordshire, before moving to London’s JFS school, with whom he first went to Israel in 1974, leading a student visit.
After four years at JFS, he was recruited by the Board of Deputies to become its education and community relations director.
But what was the standard of Jewish education in the late 1970s?
Clive put it bluntly — “dreadful, because at that time there wasn’t any”.
He continued: “There were a handful of Jewish schools and, in those schools, there were hardly any properly-trained Jewish studies teachers.
“As for adult education, that was appalling, too.”
Part of his remit at the Board included being education officer for the Yad Vashem Committee of the UK.
And he was surprised to learn that at the time the Holocaust was hardly mentioned in O-level or A-level history.
“An American series about the Holocaust was aired and, while it wasn’t great, it led to people asking why they didn’t know about it,” Clive said.
“During discussions I had, I was told that it couldn’t be taught to young people because it was ‘too distressing’.
“But I thought it should be taught, because it was about the way it was taught.”
He was instrumental in the Holocaust becoming part of the National Curriculum — but is now worried that Jews focus too much on the Shoah, as opposed to learning how to make a good Jewish life.
Clive, who was headteacher at Liverpool King David High School from 1984 to 1990, explained: “The Holocaust is as important to learn about as the Spanish Inquisition, the destructions of the temple or the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, but I do not think it is healthy for Jews to focus too much on themselves as victims when, across the world and for centuries, we have been fortunate.
“We are still here and the Romans aren’t, and so on and so on.”
After leaving KD High, he became deputy director of eduction for the city’s local education authority.
Limmud, the charity which stages an annual winter festival and several other regional events throughout the year on the theme of Jewish learning, was co-founded by Clive in 1980.
It has also spread to more than 90 countries across the world, including places as diverse as Peru, Hong Kong, India and Montenegro.
It initially based itself on America’s Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.
Clive recalled: “The World Jewish Congress funded two or three people, including an old friend of mine called Alistair Falk, who was a house master at Carmel College and a German-Israeli who was based in Britain called Michael May, to go to one of its conferences.
“They were excited by what they had seen and contacted me and Jonathan Benjamin.
“At the time, America had a cadre of Jewish educators and we had nothing like that here.”
The inaugural Limmud took place in December, 1980, at Carmel College, the Jewish boarding school in Oxfordshire.
Clive said: “Seventy people came along, most of whom were family and friends whose arms we had twisted!
“The pricing strategy I initiated had the tagline, ‘it should be cheaper than staying at home’.
“We also advertised it in Time Out which, I believe, was the first time a Jewish organisation had done such a thing in the general press.
“I wanted more involvement with Jewish communities outside Britain, so we had presenters there from Sweden, France, Israel and America, and I did say at the time that I envisaged no reason why we could not have 3,000 or more participants in the future.”
Clive became Limmud’s executive director and, later, its senior consultant, a role he relinquished in December as he had so many other areas he wanted to concentrate on, including being the scholar-in-residence at London’s JW3 Jewish community centre and chief executive of the Jewish Commonwealth Council.
The latter role has seen him travel to Jewish communities across the globe, from Barbados to Sri Lanka, and from Cyprus to Canada.
He still presents at different Limmuds, the latest one being in Manchester in June.
“Now, of course, I can go and just smile and feel proud,” he laughed.
There has always been controversy from the ultra-Orthodox when it comes to Limmud.
Previous Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks did not attend and, in 2013, when Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis announced he would be attending, a public notice signed by seven Orthodox rabbis, including Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, attacked its pluralism and urged “God-fearing Jews” not to participate in Limmud.
Clive explained: “In broad terms, it would be highly surprising for most charedim to attend because of their deep principles about separation.
“But there have also been religious Jews who come to Limmud and who love to be there.
“One of the things which confuses United Synagogue members is that their rabbis do not attend.
“It is absurd and an absurdity that Rabbi Sacks could never quite square up.
“He talked of Limmud as a jewel in the crown, but he could not quite square up the politics of it, so decided not to attend.
“When Rabbi Mirvis took on the role, one of his first announcements was that he would attend Limmud.
“It was not some sort of token gesture, either — he actually came and stayed for a couple of days.”
Limmud runs in Clive’s family, too. His daughter, Anna, who is married to Mancunian Adam Sher, was chairman of the 2017 Limmud Festival.
His other, daughter, Evie, is studying for a Master’s degree in Eilat.
Grandfather-of-one Clive remains on good terms with his ex-wife, Leodensian Sara Leviten.
Despite approaching his eighth decade, he has no plans to kick back and relax just yet, either.
Along with his numerous other roles, he is on the panel for the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize and is planning to read more than 70 books over the next few weeks.
He has also taken a Master’s degree in Hinduism and Islam, and, eight months ago, moved to Bristol from London.
Clive explained: “London is natural to me, but I don’t think it is designed for human beings.
“I spent 10 years in Liverpool and a thought occurred to me that Bristol reminded me a lot of Liverpool.
“I haven’t had the chance to involve myself with its Jewish community yet, though.”
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