What the @$#! is Rugelach? 

Your guide to noshing at the Jewish Food Festival

First of all, you have to say it right.

When it comes to Jewish food, “ch” doesn’t sound like the one in “cheese” or “patch.” It’s more of a growly “h” that comes from the back of the throat, reminiscent of a bear with a cold.

Say it now: Rugelach. Did you get that “achhh” part?

You can practice more later. Let’s get down to the tasty part: Rugelach are crescent–shaped pastries, about the size of a large thumb, rolled up with brown sugar and chopped nuts that pair perfectly with a cup of coffee. The name means “little twists” in Yiddish (the dominant language spoken by Eastern European Jews through WWII), and they’re just one of dozens of traditional Jewish treats up for enjoyment during the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival this Sunday, Oct. 30.

But how does such a tiny minority (Jews are roughly two percent of Chatham County and less than .02 percent of the world population) put on such an enormous food festival?

“Well, we’ve been baking since August!” said Festival Chair Lauri Taylor during one of the many volunteer preparation sessions that took place in the Congregation Mickve Israel kitchen in the last few months. “I just hope everyone’s coming hungry.”

The highly–anticipated Festival celebrates Savannah’s rich and storied Jewish history through food. The first festival was held in Monterey Square in 1988, but within a few years its unexpected popularity forced it into nearby Forsyth Park, where it now takes over the entire middle walkway on the last Sunday of every October.

Noshery (Yiddish for “people coming to snack”) is expected to break 10,000 this year, and practically every member of the Jewish community has been tapped to volunteer to run booths, serve food and shlep (to haul, usually while complaining) reinforcements from the Mickve Israel kitchen.

Many folks stop to buy food tickets ($1 a piece) on their way to church so they can get right in the strudel line afterwards, and it’s not unusual to see local celebrities and politicians waiting patiently for an egg cream.

Internationally famous for its rare Gothic–style synagogue on Monterey Square and its status as America’s third–oldest Jewish congregation, Mickve Israel (sometimes referred to as simply “the temple”) was founded in 1733 by a group of refuge–seeking Portuguese Jews just four months after General Oglethorpe claimed Yamacraw Bluff as the 13th colony.
Though what they ate back then probably wasn’t near as varied as the offerings will be this Sunday, those early colonists were an immediate and integral part of the new city’s success.

One of the original settlers, Dr. Samuel Nunez, is credited with saving the entire colony from dysentery, and early descendant Mordecai Sheftall led became one of the highest ranking officers in the Revolutionary War. Savannah’s Jewish community has maintained its Old World traditions while mingling with its Southern neighbors ever since.

That partly explains why almost 280 years later, people who have never set foot in a synagogue can’t wait to line up for a plate of latkes (fried potato pancakes served with applesauce and sour cream and pronounced “lat–kiss,” or “lat–keys” if you’re from Savannah.)

The other part of the reason is that warm blintzes (something like a crepe stuffed with sweet cheese and smothered in fruit compote), golden loaves of braided challah (again with the throaty growl) and pastrami–on–rye sandwiches transcend cultural lines to show us what unites everyone everywhere: Good old–fashioned comfort food made by someone’s grandma.

Or bubbe, in this case.

“These are recipes handed down from people’s families. There’s something about home–cooked dishes from any ethnic group that makes people happy, which is why all of Savannah’s cultural festivals are so popular,” says Taylor. “We’re honored to be part of such a diverse, vibrant city.”

Speaking of diversity, many folks – even Jewish ones – are surprised to learn of the cultural nuances between European Jewish traditions (or “Ashkenazic”) and the Middle Eastern–flavored heritage (“Sephardic”) that emerged from Portuguese and Spanish communities dispersed during the Spanish Inquisition.

While the religious practices are the same, centuries of geographic distance between the two groups evolved different foods, customs and languages: Ashkenazi Jews have Yiddish, an amalgam of Hebrew and German that’s given us gems like schmooze (to chill, with style) and putz (an endearing idiot). Sephardic Jews have Ladino, a linguistic combination of Aramaic, Hebrew and Spanish that’s experienced a revival in recent years.

To pay homage to those first Portuguese settlers, the Festival committee has made sure Mickve Israel’s Sephardic origins are represented this year by debuting “Sizzling Sephardic Lamb,” served in a pita with a spiced sauce. Taylor is proud to have it on the menu alongside European–influenced mainstays like matzoh ball soup and stuffed cabbage: “We’re pretty sure it’s going to become a huge favorite.”

Anyone who knows about eating Jewishly in Savannah remembers the Gottlieb Bakery (and its sister deli next door) that operated for decades downtown on Bull Street. It inspired an iconic cookbook that’s finally back in print: Isser and Ava Gottlieb will be signing copies of The New Gottlieb Family Cookbook at the holiday booth, a must–have in order to recreate Sister Sadie’s amazing Coca–Cola honeycake.

As they digest, noshers can also listen to the Savannah Philharmonic, performing a repertoire of Jewish music chosen especially for the event. The entertainment stage will once again host the energetic Bill Averbach and the Carolina Klezmer Project, whose version of “Hava Nagila” can whip up the crowd into one giant bar mitzvah hora (celebratory dance)around the fountain. Other non–noshing activities include facepainting, Israeli folkdancing and kibbitzing (to chat amiably) under the trees.

Proceeds from the festival go to fund the temple’s many programs, including Backpack Buddies, which collects nourishing snacks and delivers them to local schoolchildren on the weekends.

Taylor and the other organizers also ask that attendees remember others who don’t have enough to eat by making a donation to the Second Harvest Food Bank Booth.

Savannah’s Jewish community may be small, but there’s plenty of bubbe love to go around.

“This is a festival that comforts all the senses,” reminds Carol Greenberg, one of the Festival’s founding organizers.
“It’s not just food–there’s the music and the sunshine and all the sights and smells. Everyone gets to have a Jewish grandma for a day.”

The Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival

When: 11a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30

Where: Forsyth Park

Cost: Activities and entertainment free; food tickets $10/book of 10



About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

More by Jessica Leigh Lebos


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