Joy of the dance

Fine food, music and folk dancing are highlights of Reno’s annual Jewish Food & Fun Fest

Helene Paris, Nancy Simkin and Carisse Gafni of Temple Sinai prepare culinary treats for the annual Jewish Festival.

Helene Paris, Nancy Simkin and Carisse Gafni of Temple Sinai prepare culinary treats for the annual Jewish Festival.

Photo By David Robert

Mrs. Auld’s kitchen is normally a birthplace of pickled products, sauces and pancake mix. The commercial kitchen, tucked away out in industrial Sparks, hardly calls up images of warmth, laughter and traditional Jewish foods. But every year, the Friday before the annual Jewish Festival, the home of Auld’s line of gourmet foods becomes a gathering place for the Sisterhood of Temple Sinai, whose members spend the day making hummus, tabbouleh, fruit kugel, cheesecake and Mediterranean salad.

“You know what it’s like being in a kitchen with a group,” says Helene Paris, a member of the Sisterhood. “We share family [stories], we share current events. It’s a chat fest before the Jewish fest.”

Nancy Simkin, another member of the Sisterhood, says that for those who remember the recipes from childhood cooking has an element of nostalgia. For others, she says, it’s a way to make up for what they missed out on as kids.

“Those of us who didn’t grow up in traditional houses get a chance to share in the traditional foods and learn how to make them.”

Many members of the Jewish community begin preparing for the festival weeks ahead of time. The Sisterhood starts baking well in advance, leaving the Friday before the fest free for hours and hours of chopping, mixing and stirring.

“It’s, um, chaotic,” Simkin says of the day at Mrs. Auld’s. “It’s organized chaos, but it’s crazy because we’re making an awful lot of stuff. Everything is happening all at once.”

The annual Jewish Food and Fun Festival, which has been held at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park for the past few years, features meals and baked goods made by the Sisterhood, as well as crafts, music, dance and activities for children. Newman’s Deli will supply kosher hot dogs and hot pastrami sandwiches. Israeli folk dancers from Temple Emanu El will perform, and Temple Sinai’s band will play.

“It’s the sort of music you would have heard in Fiddler on the Roof,” Simkin says.

But Myra Soifer, rabbi at Temple Sinai, makes no mistake about the festival’s biggest draw.

“First and foremost, of course, is the food,” she says. “And then the music and the dance.”

Soifer says that the festival is also a good way for non-Jewish people to learn about the Jewish community in their midst. She says that large numbers of people from other faith traditions are in attendance every year.

“If it were just the Jews coming, we wouldn’t have a festival.”

The food, music and dance—essential ingredients of any ethnic festival—introduce the community to Jewish culture. And, in a less obvious way, the festival informs the community of Jewish faith and religious practice.

“I usually walk around with a sign on my back that says, ‘I will answer any questions about Judaism,’ “ Soifer says.

The week before the Sisterhood meets at Mrs. Auld’s, a group of dancers meet at Temple Emanu El to polish the dances they’ll perform for the fest—Bo Nashir, Debka Dror, Eretz Israel Yaffa and Le’orech Hatayelet. They move together in a circle, turning and waltzing and clapping, sometimes linking arms, sometimes moving in and meeting in the center. Some dances are fast with intricate footwork; some are slow enough that new dancers can easily follow along. When the cheerful folk music ends, everyone applauds. Or laughs at their mistakes.

The group has been meeting Tuesday evenings for years, dancing on the hard floors of the synagogue’s meeting hall. It’s a small group—they sometimes have as many as 12, but the number of core members is half that—of Jewish and non-Jewish alike. They calculate that, among them, they’ve got more than 100 years of folk dancing experience.

But that’s not to intimidate potential new dancers. They stress that they’ll be dancing “lots of easy ones,” so that onlookers can join in too. The group is quick to welcome newcomers into the circle, including me. I first visited the class early last summer. The dancers quickly roped me—and my two left feet—into the communal dances.

Sandy Jaeger, a dance teacher who has led the group for almost three years, began learning various folk dances when she was young. Israeli dance stood out.

“Israeli has always been by far my favorite,” she says. “When I was growing up, all my favorite dances were Israeli. … Every time I went to the Israeli dances, people were welcoming.”

The group’s members say that they enjoy the sense of community folk dancing affords, the way it brings them together for chatting and exercise. Yaakov Varol, a longtime folk dancer who glides through dances with effortless, casual grace (and who informs me that many of my dance issues stem from failing to put my weight on my toes), enjoys the lightheartedness of the artform.

“Jewish culture is joy, and song and music are central to the culture,” he says. “The music has become more meaningful [with dance]. I enjoy the music more because of the dancing I do.”

“It’s one of the best places for coming together,” Jaeger adds. “Today, our culture doesn’t work very well for bringing together the community. Almost any kind of folk dancing, and in particular Israeli dancing, brings together the young and the old. In this day and age, the tendency is to sit at home and watch TV.”

“Speaking of which,” one of the dancers says, looking at his watch, which reads well after 9 p.m. “I’m late for that.”

I am offered a tiny taste of Friday’s food revelries when, on the Monday before the festival, Simkin and Sinai member Carisse Gafni meet for lunch at Paris’ home. They show off some of the baked goods to be sold at the festival—macaroons and hamantaschen, three-pointed, jam-filled pastries traditionally made for the Jewish holiday Purim.

“A few desperados have tried to make them with chocolate, and it’s really not a success,” Gafni explains.

Simkin mentions that the festival’s chefs are getting more daring: They’re making falafel this year, a food known for its messiness. She thinks that perhaps latke, or potato pancakes, are on their way in.

“If the falafel flies, then maybe next we’ll get our courage up and have latke,” she says.

“Well, I have the secret recipe for bringing [latke] back to good health,” Paris offers—though she doesn’t reveal what the secret is.

“It’s the Lazarus effect,” Simkin suggests. She then acknowledges that this New Testament biblical character is an interesting choice, given that we’re talking about the Jewish fest.

“It’s a multicultural event," she says, laughing.