Michael Leventhal is the Founder and Director of the annual Gefiltefest: The London Jewish Food Festival. He is the co-author of “Jews in Britain” and publisher/editor of “The Hand of History.” Michael is also the publisher of a military history publishing company named Frontline Books.
"Ashkenazi food is awful!" protested Gil Hovav, "and gefilte fish is absolutely dreadful!" The Israeli TV cookery writer and chef was in England in June for the Gefiltefest London Jewish Food Festival. Speaking at a Gefiltefest reception at the Israeli Embassy, he poked fun at terrible food from the Steppes and insisted his own family's Yemenite food traditions were far superior. Frankly, he's right.
As well as Gil, three ROIers came over from Israel specially for the fifth food festival: Nissimmi and Shlomit Naim-Naor, armed with their couscous demonstration kit, and cookbook publisher and journalist Ofer Vardi. ROIer Valentina Marcenaro also came from Germany to see how the Gefiltefest model works and how it can be copied and used elsewhere.
As Gefiltefest's founder I wanted to push this year's festival to a new international level: everyone eats and nothing connects people across all boundaries. The charity's mission is to bring people together to explore the relationship between Judaism and food, educating and enthusing them about all aspects of Jewish food including food heritage, ethics, culture and traditions. I believe that the Gefiltefest festival model can be exported to other countries, just as the Limmud model has been exported around the world.
I was keen that my friend and fellow ROIer Ofer Vardi came to the festival. I wanted to have the chance to chat with him in person about future Jewish food projects and I wanted to hear him talk to an audience about publishing cookbooks. Most important of all, I wanted Ofer to become part of the nascent Jewish food community that Gefiltefest has spearheaded. It is a new international community using food and Jewish culinary heritage as a point of connection.
In London for a week, Ofer had the chance to meet some of the world's most famous Jewish food writers, including Gefiltefest's patron Claudia Rode, and consolidate friendships with other key Jewish writers, such as Marlena Spieler. Aside from the festival, Ofer joined a pre-festival Gefiltefest pot-luck dinner at the Israeli Embassy and a Friday night with an Italian-Jewish cook, Silvia Nacamulli; an Iraqi-Jewish cookery writer, Linda Dangoor; and three American Jewish cookery writers, Kim Kushner, Joan Nathan and Poopa Dweck. Not to mention some tremendous food - Carciofi alla goidia - Rome's Jewish fried artichokes recipes. At the festival Ofer gave a successful and very well-attended talk titled "Scrapbook to Cookbook: how to get your family recipes published."
And his visit was a success: it has established new relationships and strengthened the ROI network. The festival was the biggest and most exciting Gefiltefest has ever staged: it proved to me that the charity has been the catalyst for a new Jewish point of connection. Gefiltefest is now in discussion with other Jewish food enthusiasts in other countries who want to run similar events, or copy particular sessions. It proved to me the power of falafels!
As Director I was busy running around all day to ensure things ran smoothly. I only sat and enjoyed one session with Daniel Taub, the Israeli Ambassador to Britain. His session is a light-hearted panel debate on food that you can watch here on YouTube. The festival had more than 75 sessions and 750 visitors - despite getting next to no funding and relying heavily on the goodwill of volunteers. And I was immensely proud that we launched the fundraising Gefiltefest Cookbook - recipes from more than 50 of the world's best Jewish cooks, all in one tasty volume.
Ofer took a chance coming to London and it paid off: I'd encourage other ROIers to do the same with any opportunity. The last Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said once that it is often the meshuggenahs that make things happen. So take a chance, even if other people think you're a little crazy.