Sometimes in unexpected locations, Jewish food festivals unite history, culture

Sometimes in unexpected locations, Jewish food festivals unite history, culture

Asheville, N.C., and Little Rock, Ark. Not exactly the Jewish capitals of America, but they are both home to major Jewish food festivals.

From street vendors to strolling klezmer musicians, food festivals bring people together with traditional favorites, uniting history and culture. According to Marty Gillen, chairman of Asheville’s HardLox Jewish Food and Heritage Festival, the festival is the most important Jewish event of the year.  

“We have no Jewish deli in Asheville at this time,” Gillen said. “We say that HardLox is the only day of the year that you can get real Jewish food in Asheville.”

A fundraiser for Congregation Beth HaTephila, the Reform temple in Asheville, HardLox is staffed by 250 volunteers. Visitors can nosh on corned beef on rye, potato knishes, kosher hot dogs, bagels, lox and cream cheese, chopped-liver sandwiches, whitefish salad and cheese blintzes. The Beth HaTephila sisterhood prepares 50 gallons of matzo ball soup and 30 large pans of noodle kugel.

“It is our opportunity to share our food, our music and our heritage with the greater Asheville community,” said Gillen. “The music helps maintain the Jewish atmosphere all day at the festival.”

Little Rock’s Jewish Food and Cultural Festival, held in late April this year, brings together Jews from throughout Arkansas not only to celebrate their shared heritage, but also to share their culture and traditions with a non-Jewish audience.

“Since our own Jewish community numbers only around 2,000, most of the attendees at our festival are non-Jews, many of whom are experiencing Jewish food for the first time or for the only time that year, as Jewish staples like bagels and lox or kugel are not readily available in stores, and there is no Jewish delicatessen here,” said Marianne Tettlebaum, director of the Jewish Federation of Arkansas, which holds the festival.

The festival’s average annual attendance is 10,000.  

“Our festival is a statewide effort,” Tettlebaum said. “Volunteers in Jewish communities throughout the state bake, cook and staff the booths.”

Tettlebaum called Jewish food “a tangible and enjoyable example of shared religious and cultural traditions.”

“I would describe Jewish food as any food that has religious significance or has been meaningful to a particular group of Jews on a broad scale for a certain period of time,” she said.

The Arkansas festival also features cultural and religious booths that showcase various aspects of Jewish life, from Arkansas to ancient Israel. Booths include “Ask the Rabbi”; “Shalom Israel,” where volunteers from Israel or those knowledgeable about Israeli culture provide information about the Jewish state; a large model of the Western Wall, where visitors can leave messages that make it to the Western Wall in Jerusalem; Ati’Day, which features activities for kids; and a booth with Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis offering hands-on Jewish activities, such as learning how to write in Hebrew.

Overseas, Australia’s Sydney Jewish Food Festival sold out in its first year, 2012. France, Germany, Argentina and Hungary are considering launching Jewish food festivals. The thriving Jewish food scene in England, meanwhile, is feted during the annual “Gefiltefest” food festival in London.

The fifth annual Gefiltefest took place on June 15. Dan Sher, the festival’s events and communications officer, said that while eating is universal, in the Jewish community “our food really matters.

“Eating is not just a casual enjoyment but an expression of our culture, history, philosophy and, for some, spirituality,” Sher said. “Within the Jewish community, numerous social and spiritual rituals revolve around food.”

For instance, Sher said that gathering outside bakeries on a Saturday night in London’s Golders Green neighborhood, which has a large Jewish population, is for many locals “as important as the Shabbat Kiddush in shul.”

More traditionally, Sher said, “On Purim we eat with triumph pastries said to resemble the ears or hat of the wicked Haman. With even more charged emotions, at Pesach we retell our ancestors’ Egyptian exodus as though it were ours, with accompaniments of tears for our slavery (saltwater), the mortar of the pyramids we were forced to build (haroseth) and the unleavened bread that we hastily took with us (matzah).”

“For the Jewish community, dishes reveal our roots, our diaspora wanderings and also our modern practicalities and passions,” said Sher. “Through the dishes we cook or cling to — with fondness or inexplicable loyalty — we can relate to the cross-continental journeys of our ancestors or evoke our childhood and families.”

When the first Gefiltefest was held in October 2010, there were no similar Jewish food festivals, but now communities around the world “are beginning to host events based on the Gefiltefest model,” according to Sher. The festival is under Orthodox kosher supervision.

“We attract some of the biggest names in kosher food, and we are now the U.K.’s biggest kosher food festival,” he said.

This year’s festival includes exhibitors of kosher cuisine from Syria, Italy, Israel, Tunisia, and the Czech Republic. In cooking workshops, attendees are able to pickle their own herring, preserve lemons, make baba ganoush and bake challot.

The event also features a popular Ashkenazi versus Sephardi cook-off and the announcement of the annual Gefiltefest-Jewish Chronicle [England] Food Awards, for which the British public votes on the best kosher restaurants, bagels and cheesecake in the months leading up to the festival.

Gefiltefest 2014 also marks the launch of “The Gefiltefest Cookbook,” which features recipes from more than 50 other internationally renowned chefs.

“Perhaps belatedly, the value of our [Jewish] culinary heritage is now appreciated across the globe,” Sher said. “People have started to appreciate that food is an important way of uniting people to celebrate our history and culture.”