Our cuisine celebrated, thanks to Mr Gefiltefest
We meet strudel-loving Michael Leventhal, founder of the UK's first Jewish food festival.
Michael Leventhal, organiser of the pleasingly named Gefiltefest, has a dry sense of humour. A recent email sent under his pseudonym, Michael Gefiltefest, disappeared into junk. "How inappropriate for a Jewish foodie to be spam," he replied.
Thirtysomething Leventhal was more a man of words than food. After university he spent 10 years as a journalist and then - good Jewish boy that he is - joined his father in the family business publishing historical books.
He describes the birth of the UK's first Jewish food festival as a happy accident: "It started with a cooking lesson and snowballed. After all, we have a Jewish Film Festival. Jewish Book Week is a permanent fixture. So why no Jewish Food Festival?"
Last year, his girlfriend, now fiancée, Rachel, won a lesson with chef, Lisa Roukin. Rachel, an accomplished cook, passed her prize to Leventhal. Roukin agreed to convert the one-to-one lesson to a cupcake-decorating demonstration. The demonstration grew into a whole day event for 200, with 30 speakers on subjects as diverse as challah baking, bee husbandry, organic kosher food and the ethics of schechitah. They raised £3,000 for Israeli charities and donated two barrels of food to home-grown causes.
What struck him was how much food can tell us. "The aubergine, for example, is hugely tied up with our social history," he says. "In Italy, it was seen as a Jewish food and regional Italian aubergine recipes mirror Jewish migration northwards through the country." He is so taken with this vegetable's colourful history it became the festival's symbol.
Leventhal sees Gefiltefest as an educational opportunity. "We try to make it interesting and innovative, but in a fun way". Seminars lined up for this year's event, which takes place on May 22, include whether GM tomatoes are kosher and do animals slaughtered for kosher meat live a happy life before they are dispatched? Find out more at the festival but in a nutshell, GM food is not strictly kosher due to a biblical prohibition on cross-breeding. Kosher cows are unlikely to have had the greatest life, but it seems there is insufficient consumer demand for organic kosher meat. Gefiltefest has made Leventhal himself consider becoming vegetarian after what he learned of animal husbandry at last year's event.
According to Leventhal: "Gefiltefest turned out to be a great way of making people connect, unifying different branches of the community as well as other religions.
"For example, Spice Caravan, the caterers chosen for last year's event, were a Muslim group of female refugees from Eritrea and Somalia."
One told him later she was terrified of going to cook in a Jewish home but admitted it totally changed her perception of Jewish people.
New this year are the food awards, voted for by the public and judged by food professionals including Josh Katz of the restaurant Made in Camden and Elizabeth Carter of the Good Food Guide. Leventhal's own food award goes, diplomatically, to "my grandmother's Sophie's strudel. The best I've ever tasted".
This year's festival will be hosted by the London Jewish Cultural Centre in Golders Green. Leventhal says he is "overwhelmed by the number of people who want to get involved". Over 1,000 people are expected to attend and he hopes to raise even more money for a wider range of charities.
Also on the menu are chef demonstrations and expert talks including one on food and sex in Jewish films and a debate called "Are kosher restaurants rubbish?"
Next year, the festival plans to go national. "We're planning a relay in which a team of rabbis will cycle from Land's End to John O'Groats for charity," says Leventhal.