Jewish Food Festival | Jewish for Good  |  1937 W Cornwallis Road, Durham  |  Sunday, May 7, 2- 5 p.m., $5

Given the intensity of the task at hand, things are going surprisingly smoothly this morning in the kitchen at Jewish for Good in Durham, where seven volunteers are at work making nearly 1,000 traditional Ashkenazi pastries to be served at the community center’s annual Jewish Food Festival on May 7.

The volunteers—mostly Jewish grandmothers, or bubbes—are working shoulder to shoulder around a large prep table to assemble the bite-sized pastries, which are called knishes and consist of a potato-and-onion mixture wrapped in a flaky crust.

The process is unforgiving and requires both tenderness and haste. Rectangles of dough, which become unworkable if they sit at room temperature too long, must be rolled out thin enough that the table is visible underneath. The next two steps—smearing the rectangle with potato filling and scrolling it into a log—are tricky to pull off without tearing a hole in the dough.

Each log is sectioned into 16 pieces and each piece indented with a thimble-capped index finger before being egg-washed and baked.

Knishes are just one of the many festival items being made in-house by volunteers and Jewish for Good’s small baking staff, whose weekly production is typically limited to loaves of challah and babka.

Other in-house festival items include sweet, cheese-stuffed crepes called blintzes; spinach-and-ricotta-filled hand pies called bourekas; liver on crackers; black-and-white cookies; and brisket sliders on challah rolls, among other traditional fare. There will also be a number of vendor stations: matzo ball soup from Short Winter Soups; kosher hot dogs and hamburgers from Chabad; bagels from Isaac’s Bagels; and pickles from Julz Creations.

Part of the mission behind the Jewish Food Festival, now in its 11th iteration, is tzedakah: the Jewish obligation to perform deeds of justice, often fulfilled through charitable giving. All proceeds from the festival’s ticket sales will be used to help stock Jewish for Good’s food pantry, which in 2022 provided $16,000 in monthly food assistance to community members in need.

Brisket slider on a challah roll. Photo by Lena Geller.

The festival also aims to provide the local Jewish community with an opportunity to eat foods that are hard to find in the South, where Jewish populations are particularly small.

“A lot of the dishes we’re serving are things that you just can’t otherwise get around here,” says Kenneth Case-Cohen, the manager of Jewish for Good’s coffee and snack bar.

“That’s a big part of the reason that we do it: just so there’s an opportunity for people to access this food and enjoy it in the same space.”

Even in places like New York City, where Jewish food is more widespread, traditional items have become harder to find.

Knishes, for instance, have seen a drastic downturn in availability in New York over the past three decades. In the late 1980s, then mayor Ed Koch signed a bill requiring street vendors to sell frozen knishes instead of fresh ones. A few years later, Koch’s successor, Rudy Giuliani, effectively prohibited the pastries from being sold at food carts by classifying cooked potatoes as hazardous.

The struggle to keep Jewish food traditions alive may explain why many Jews regard passed-down family recipes not as well-guarded secrets but as something to be shared and celebrated.

“Most of the recipes that we’re making in-house are from somebody’s bubbe,” Case-Cohen says. “It’s pretty amazing to feel connected to these ancestral food items.”

The knish recipe, for example, was provided by Elaine Marcus, the bubbe leading this morning’s effort. She learned the method from her own bubbe, who spoke fluent Yiddish.

Marcus, accessorized in a mint-green bandana and two flour-caked rings, spends most of the morning whisking around the kitchen, showing the ropes to less-experienced volunteers and doing damage control on leaky dough logs.

At one point, though, she stops in her tracks when the team hits a snag: all of the thimbles have disappeared.

Thimbles play an essential role in indenting knishes, according to Marcus. The dimples in the top of a thimble create tiny holes in the knish dough, which release steam during the bake and prevent air bubbles from forming between the filling and the crust.

Making her grandmother’s knishes without thimbles, Marcus says, is out of the question.

“I’m going to have to start checking pockets,” she warns.

Then, a breakthrough from one bubbe: “It was on my finger the whole time!”

Two others are still missing. Marcus, huffing a little, leaves the kitchen and returns with a few from her private stock.

Production resumes. 

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