Pastrami in the Park

When you see a priest in full collar standing in line for potato latkes, you know you’re at the Shalom Y’all Food Festival. Which is to say yesterday’s gastronomic festivities were a grand success along the green acres of Savannah’s jewel, Forsythe Park. The thousands of people milling about, smacking their lips proves once and again that the small Jewish community of Savannah is way more than chopped liver to the city at large.

I suppose those of you who live in places with strong Jewish centers might take an event like this for granted, but hailing first from Arizona and then the hippie netheregions of Northern California, I found it amazing that so many people turned out for matzoh ball soup and bagels. I snarfed dolmas and baklava at Savannah’s Greek food festival last weekend, and there was maybe a quarter the attendance. Federation staffer Larry Dane-Kellogg estimated that “Shalom Y’all” would raise over $30,000 for Congregation Mickve Israel; can anyone inform me of another temple fundraiser that surpasses that in one day?

I’ve intimated before that Savannah’s Reform Jews are some of the most assimilated around, likely because of the deep South’s suspicion of Jews back when the first Portuguese ones arrived back in 1733 and subsequent generations’ social and material ambitions. Today’s congregation is proudly under-religious, yet has such a strong cultural presence that clusters of African-American ladies in fabulous hats came to wait 20 minutes for strudel after church.

(By the way, Savannah does have a visible, if small, Orthodox community � black hats, wigs, with an eruv and everything � but I haven’t had occasion to have much contact since I decided to send my son to public school rather than the tiny Day school. And since the Jewish food festival wasn’t explicitly kosher, I didn’t see any tzitzit.)

So with the question of what defines Jewish identity always plinking around my mind, especially after reading last week’s prickly Jpost article about “Judaism-lite” by Ariel Beery and Esther’s related posts on My Urban Kvetch and Jewlicious, I understand that eating a corned beef on rye doesn’t make a person Jewish.

But there is definitely something about the food the relates to Jewish identity as well as Jewish pride. No, learning to love borscht won’t ever replace Torah study as Jewish education, but tasting it and sensing something familiar makes a person feel more Jewish. Until all of us errant Jews give up our assimilated lives and get serious about shul and mitzvot, it’s always going to be about the food.

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