Asheville’s Jewish community prepares to indulge in delicious Jewish foods, take part in Israeli folk dancing and share the celebration of Judaism in anticipation of this weekend’s HardLox Jewish Food and Heritage Festival.
“We want to put ourselves out there in the middle of downtown Asheville, and say to everybody, we are the Jewish community, come take a look at us, look at our food, listen to our music, learn about our heritage, and know more about the Jewish culture,” said Marty Gillen, head of the HardLox Jewish Food and Heritage Festival committee.
The festival’s activities begin in Pack Square on Sunday, marking its 16th year in Asheville.
“It is an opportunity for non-Jews to learn more about Judaism and the Jewish culture, building bridges of understanding and tearing down walls of ignorance,” said Dee Kridel, manager of Discovered Traditions Gift Shop at Temple Beth El. “It’s also an opportunity for Jews who are not members of a Synagogue to renew their ties to the Jewish community and culture.”
In addition to being Asheville’s annual Jewish food and culture experience, HardLox serves as one of the only places to enjoy authentic Jewish cuisine, according to Jessica Whitehill with Jewish Family Services of Western North Carolina.
“There are few restaurants in Asheville that regularly offer foods such as matzo ball soup, kugel or pastrami sandwiches, especially of the quality that we see at HardLox,” Whitehill said.
The festival strives to obtain certain food items from suppliers in Asheville, according to Gillen.
“We get a few things here in town. City Bakery bakes our rye bread for us, and this year we are getting our humus from Roots, an Asheville company. Gypsy Queen Cuisine is doing our falafels,” Gillen said. “We are trying to find things that are local.”
While HardLox sources some foods locally, the festival also imports from larger cities to ensure an authentic experience, according to Gillen.
“Tomorrow we’re getting a delivery of 600 pounds of corn beef pastrami from Boston, and then three days later we’re getting knishes and latkes from a company in New York that’s delivering them down here,” Gillen said.
The genuine traditional Jewish feast available at HardLox proves to be a main attraction among many of the festival’s participants.
“With a lot of the food that people like, I try to be as authentic as possible, and you can’t get some of those things in Asheville,” Gillen said. “We truck in a lot of food for HardLox, just a tremendous amount of food.”
The numerous Jewish organizations partaking in the event meet in Pack Square at 11 a.m. on Sunday to commence the food and festivities.
“Most of the foods you will see at HardLox do not have a particular religious significance other than abiding by the Kosher dietary laws, but they are the foods that Jews brought with them as immigrants and have eaten for decades,” Kridel said. “It gives us all something in common and brings non-Jews a little closer to us as we all sit at the tables enjoying matzo ball soup.”
Other activities associated with the festival include Israeli dancing, crafts, klezmer music and more.
“HardLox is the one day each year when the entire Jewish community in Western North Carolina comes together to celebrate our religion, heritage and culture,” Whitehill said.
The Asheville-based event offers a unique opportunity for Jewish communities to connect with one another, according to Rochelle Reich, director of Community Life and Jewish Learning for the Asheville Jewish Community Center.
“We see approximately 1,500 people through our booth in the five hours of the festival,” said Reich. “For us it’s one of the most significant opportunities to connect with the community each year. It is an opportunity to meet newcomers, and other community members that have questions about the Jewish Community Center, or didn’t even know that we existed. “
Frank Goldsmith, state board member of Carolina Jews for Justice and steering committee member of Carolina Jews for Justice West, appreciates the ability to connect with the greater community of Asheville and provide an interactive educational opportunity to learn about Jewish heritage.
“I think it is quite important to provide the broader community an opportunity to learn about our culture. Folks here may not have had an opportunity to learn firsthand about Judaism, Jewish culture, and the several Jewish institutions that are in the area,” Goldsmith said. “It’s not that Jews want to proselytize anyone, we don’t do that, but we think it is valuable for our neighbors to understand better who we are, and to enjoy a lively and fun cultural experience.”
This year the festival coincides with the day on which the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which begins in the evening, according to Gillen.
“To celebrate Sukkot, we put up a Sukkah,” Gillen said. “Many Jews set up a sukkah on their yard or their patio, and you’re supposed to go in there at night to share a meal and bring friends.”
While the HardLox Jewish food and Heritage Festival centers primarily around celebrating the harvest season and connecting communities, the observance of Sukkot carries importance in Jewish heritage, according to Goldsmith.
“The central narrative of our people is a story of displacement, settlement, and displacement again, and so the sukkah calls to mind not only the plight of the homeless, but also of the refugee, the vulnerable people who are forced to leave their homes and travel with very little, seeking admission at each border, hoping to find stability in their lives,” Goldsmith said. “We are faced with that situation today on our southern border, with desperate families begging for admission to our country. Observing Sukkot heightens our awareness of their plight and arouse empathy for the homeless and the wanderers.”
Partakers can learn more about Sukkot and experience a sukkah at the event on Sunday, according to Gillen.
“This year, we are going to have a sukkah at HardLox. We are putting up a frame, and for the roof, we get bamboo. You put bamboo across the roof, or some other kind of branches, with the idea that you can see the sky through the roof.”
Congregation Beth HaTephila hosts the HardLox Jewish Food and Heritage Festival, co-sponsored by the city of Asheville.
“I think whenever we can learn more about each other; it reduces barriers and enriches all of us,” said Carol Falender, board member of The Jewish Secular Community of Asheville.
The free festival also features an opportunity to explore Judaic art and discover the Torah.
“We are ready for a joyous celebration of bounty and hope for a good year ahead,” said Kridel. “The act of shaking the Lulav and Etrog, which will be offered at HardLox this year, is an act of faith and hope for the future, which is very relevant and needed today as much as ever.”