Lining up participants for The Great Big Jewish Food Fest has been the easiest experience with event planning Jeffrey Yoskowitz has ever had.
“Not a single person we’ve asked has said a flat out ‘no,’”Yoskowitz said, “everyone has said ‘I’m in, I want to be part of it.’”
Yoskowitz is the coauthor of the “The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods” and cofounder of Gefilteria, the Brooklyn-based artisanal gefilte fish company, both with Liz Alpern. Alpern is also on the team producing the festival, along with Lisa Colton, founder and president of the Seattle-based Darim Online and Darim Consulting.
The festival, which will take place from May 19 to 28, has drawn many well-known Jewish food personalities. Author Michael Twitty will speak about food as a vehicle for identity. A conversation between cookbook author Joan Nathan and former New York Times food critic and former editor of Gourmet Magazine Ruth Reichl will explore Jewish cooking in America.
One highlight on the main stage will be “The Great Shabbat Cook Along,” hosted by Top Chef judge Gail Simmons, featuring Zahav chef Michael Solomonov, Balaboosta and Taim chef Einat Admony and Sababa author Adeena Sussman. Another draw will be “A Spicy Havdalah” with Lior Lev Sercarz, chef, spice blender and owner of New York City spice store La Boîte. The smaller gatherings, which will be limited in attendance to create more intimacy and community building, include such events as online hangouts for deli owners and happy hours for the kosher industry. One session Yoskowitz is particularly excited about is Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Darra Goldstein sharing highlights from their massive cookbook collections.
A day after online registration opened this week, there were already 2000 people registered, without any press or publicity.
The whole thing came together in a matter of weeks. Several foundations are supporting the initiative, and OneTable, the organization that supports young Jews connecting over Shabbat dinner, is hosting everything on its platform. Yoskowitz called it “a six-month project crammed into six weeks” and now has a staff of over 10 working with him, along with some of OneTable’s employees.Yoskowitz, who makes a living through teaching about Jewish food and workshops, saw his entire calendar of events disappear in a matter of days, and with that, came a loss of income – a plight familiar to all gig workers.
Right before Passover, he had a brainstorming conversation with Colton who had noticed the sudden proliferation of cooking workshops – and every kind of workshop for that matter – online.
In that conversation a plan was hatched. “We thought, let’s leverage this moment and use it for good to support relief efforts, as well as create a platform for others in the food industry losing their usual platform or livelihood,” Yoskowitz said.
Leah Koenig, most recently the author of The Jewish Cookbook also had a wave of events planned for spring, including a pre-Passover dinner at Michael Solomonov’s Abe Fisher.
“I lost income for sure, but more than that I was heartbroken to have gigs I was so excited about vanish overnight,” said Koenig.
“While nothing quite replaces face-to-face interaction,” she said, “I have been consistently amazed at how intimate the virtual events and cooking demos I’ve led over the last few weeks have felt.”
There’s no limit to how many people can attend the festival. Main stage events will be both on Zoom and Facebook live, and all sessions are free, though participants can make donations.There’s also a store set up, where authors are selling their books, and people can order packages from some of the participants’ restaurants.
When donating, participants can choose between the festival’s general fund, The Jewish Food Society’s Health Care Heroes, which is providing meals to health care workers, The James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant Relief Fund, the JDC’s Coronavirus Emergency Fund to Provide Aid to Vulnerable Jews (International) and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.
Of course, an online food festival is missing one crucial element: food. But Yoskowitz said that there are some positive aspects to this, as strange as it may be.
One is that no mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, is needed, and no one needs to worry about levels of kashrut observance.
The second advantage is the intimacy fostered by everyone being at home.
“I’ve done virtual workshops already, and there’s a real opportunity to bring people into your kitchen in an intimate way,” said Yoskowitz. “To have people cooking along with you, it’s incredible to see that as a presenter and as an educator. It’s really gratifying to see the impact right away, and so I think we’re really leaning into what technology offers, rather than its limitations.”
But there are even more benefits, he said.
“Two months ago, some in the older generation would never have agreed to do a virtual festival, but this opens up new possibilities,” he said. People will be able to join from around the world, like Sussman, who will be cooking from her kitchen in Tel Aviv alongside chefs in the U.S..
“That technology allows people from all over the world to connect over cooking, eating, and the cultural and sensory pleasures of food, no matter where we are, is a balm right now,” said Sussman.
While Yoskowitz is laser-focused on what will take place in only a few weeks, he said he’s hoping there will be an afterlife from the festival as well.
“We’ll see how it channels interest in Jewish food,” he said. “As a result of this moment, I want to support people cooking at home, and provide inspiration and connection.”
Alix Wall is a freelance writer based in Oakland and the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals.
A Jewish food festival draws big names online