Get your latke and blintz fix when Shalom Y’all rolls into Forsyth Park on Sunday. Words and photos by Lisa Solod.
Joan Levy wipes her brow and smooths her apron, which reads, “Shalom Y’all.” It’s steaming in the busy kitchen at Congregation Mickve Israel, where volunteers are prepping food ahead of the Jewish Food Festival, slated for Oct. 27 in Forsyth Park. They’re boiling cabbage leaves, sautéing onions, browning hamburger meat and stirring tomato sauce for a savory dish that beckons hundreds to queue up and wait, sometimes hours, for a bite.
Off to the side, a team of rollers stuff and fold the leaves just so, and slather them with sauce to ready them for parbaking. The group tries to do as much as they can on site the day of the festival, but some things—like the labor-intensive stuffed cabbage—have to be made ahead and then be “finished” the morning of the festival.
Joan stops for a moment to supervise. “Those are too fat,” she advises. The leaves are unrolled, then rolled again and tucked into an aluminum pan.
“There are a lot of stuffed cabbage recipes,” says Joan, who founded the festival 25 years ago. “This year we used a new one.”
That’s risky business for a Savannah tradition, where upwards of 10,000 festival goers pay a buck a ticket to relish their favorite Jewish delicacies among the lamb, potato latkes, blintzes, challah and hummus. But they’re certain to be a hit as diners nosh around the fountain while Velvet Caravan plays gypsy blues and the children amuse themselves with music, dance and puppet shows.
“The dog biscuit booth sells out,” Joan laughs knowingly. She is one of several congregation members who can trace her Savannah roots to the original settlers who founded Mickve Isreal. She got the idea to start a food festival in the Hostess City after she attended a similar event in New Orleans.
“It seemed like a great idea,” she recalls of the humble fair that started in Monterey Square with kosher hot dogs and deli meats. “A good fundraiser and a good way to bring the congregation together.”
Longtime congregation member Barbara Bart, who chaired the festival for the first two years, reminisces about the early days.
“It was crazy,” she says. “We had to get all kinds of permits. I think we had no idea what would be involved. It was a totally new idea for the city.”
But the event was so popular there was no question about doing it a second year and then a third and… Once the ball got rolling, the event snowballed from a few booths to dozens and moved to its current and larger location at Forsyth Park.
“It is such a good social way for members to work together,” Barbara enthuses. “It’s a shared experience that benefits the entire congregation. It’s a great outreach program, too. It introduces us to the community at large.”