A rookie’s guide to the Richmond Jewish Food Festival

Our top-five things you’ve got to try at the Richmond Jewish Food Festival.

“If you want Jewish food in Richmond, you make it yourself,” says Diane Goldberg, an organizer of the Richmond Jewish Food Festival. “There aren’t a lot of us [Orthodox Jews] here, so there’s not a lot for us.” She’s not kvetching; she’s simply acknowledging a common truth for southern Jews, to which she adds, “So we really want to show people what Jewish food [and] Jewish culture is all about.”

Diane and Rich Goldberg have been organizing the festival since the beginning, seven years ago. They plan year-round to create an event that gives Richmonders some insight into a defining aspect of Jewish culture: the food. An authentic Jewish food festival in the South is a bit of a unicorn, but Diane, a Richmond native, suggests that there’s something about Richmond hospitality that makes it work. “People are surprised at how friendly we are. I think there’s something to that Southern aspect of it that makes it a perfect fit.”

Preparations start months in advance for a festival of this size, now in its second year at the Weinstein JCC. “Last year, we had about 5,000 people. This year, I would say 6,000 to 8,000,” says Rich. “When he says that, it makes me feel like we need to leave right now and start cooking,” Diane laughs. Creating the appearance of a home-cooked meal for that many people is serious logistical business that necessitates the formation of committees, full access to the kosher kitchen at Keneseth Beth Israel, a refrigerated truck donated by Martin’s, and the effort of over 80 volunteers. Diane describes the laborious preparation of the latkes: “There are six people in the kitchen, making nothing but latkes all day long. They make at least 1,000!”

When the festival made the transition to the JCC last year, after five years at Keneseth Beth Israel, certain educational aspects of the festival were left behind. Rich, who’s in charge of reading every single exit survey and compiling the feedback each year, noticed something: “People wanted to know where the cultural aspects were. We were a little surprised. We thought it was more about the food.” Rich and Diane pause for a moment to consider this before Diane adds, “the food is what brings people to the culture.”

Rich’s top suggestion for first-time festival-goers is to go to the website. There you’ll find printable menus, performance descriptions, and an online order form that lets you pre-order all your favorites to be picked up at the time of your choosing. Now THAT is a helpful website. When in doubt, here are my Top 5 Things You’ve Got To Try:

1. Bubbe’s Bakery

Deep down, we all want a babushka’d bubbe making cookies for us, but if you don’t already have one, it’s probably not going to happen for you. Enter The Bubbe’s. They’ll make you rugelach and baklava with none of the guilt and nagging of traditional bubbes! Now put on a sweater, already. I’m cold! You look so skinny. What, they don’t feed you at that fancy school of yours? Take some cookies, please!!

Look for the almond horns, shaped to resemble Rosh Hashanah’s shofar horn and made of marzipan. They’re gluten-free even! Because Bubbe loves you.

2. Stuffed Cabbage

There is a committee (A COMMITTEE!) of people dedicated to the production of this stuffed cabbage. Some of them blend the meat, some do the wrapping. Everyone knows her task without asking. Thousands of holishkes1 pass through the probably arthritic fingers of an elite team of cabbage rollers before getting a hot, saucy bath and a trip to the oven. For better or worse, the smell of cabbage fills the synagogue. There’s no mistaking it. The sour, acidic notes of the tomato sauce, the downright cabbage-iness of it. It smells bad, but it smells amazing, a whiff of Poland during Purim. Order your cabbage to go, and you’ll have all the galumpki2 glory with none of that cabbage-house-smell.

3. Tony Booth

Sure, Tony Booth isn’t a food, but if he were, I’d like to think the veteran DJ would be a malted root beer float–classic, sweet, and fizzy, with a quality you can’t find just anywhere, a sip of history through a red and white straw. Tony and (THE!) Ron Moody will team up to present “The Stars of David–Jews in Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Rich (an avid musician, playing five shows over the two-day festival) elaborates with infectious excitement: “They’ll talk about the writers and talent…even newer folks like that Adam Levine guy.” Adam Levine guy, indeed. Will Scott Ian get a mention? Fingers crossed.

4. Cholent

This Shabbot stew, born in the shtetls of Poland, is a cassoulet-like concoction that defies written recipe and offers as many variations as there are families to cook it. The only common ingredient among the myriad of recipes seems to be time. Everyone agrees a proper cholent requires at least 12 hours of slow, steady heat. Jewish law prohibits cooking on the Sabbath, so in order to have a hot meal after services, Polish Jews would come together at the baker’s house on Friday night with whatever they had on hand. The pot of stew would stay tucked away in a warm spot of the oven until the families came to claim it the next day.

Danya and Ron Binshtok use a traditional Ashkenazi sausage called kishke as the dominant protein for their cholent, plus secret a mix of vegetables, grains, and spices they keep closely guarded.3 The Binshtoks won the Iron Crockpot challenge to determine the festival’s fan-favorite years ago. Their prize: the honor of making enough cholent for 5,000-8,000 of their closest friends for the rest of their natural lives. MAZEL TOV, BINSHTOKS!

5. Tzimmes

Tzimmes can be a hard sell for Jews and gentiles alike, and here’s why: prunes. People get weird when they see a prune, but the prune is a magical thing that imbues each pan of tzimmes with a richness that can change hearts and minds, if only you’ll give it a try. Tzimmes is a dish based on slow-cooked carrots and yams, but it can contain other root vegetables and squash, even meat, all of which are sweetened with honey to symbolize a sweet year to come.

A few years ago, the tzimmes was so unexpectedly popular it sold out on the first day, sending the Goldbergs scrambling to buy “every sweet potato in Richmond,” so they could “peel, chop, and cook all night.” They, understandably, never want to pull another tzimmes all-nighter, so this year, they’re not taking any chances, practically doubling last year’s production.

Jewish Food Festival

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  1. Ashkenazi term for cabbage roll. 
  2. American-Polish term for cabbage roll. 
  3. I hear there’s beer in there, but that’s unconfirmed. 
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Stephanie Ganz

Stephanie Ganz thought there would be pizza.

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