Summer in Milwaukee is synonymous with festivals.
From Summerfest to Bastille Days to Mexican Fiesta, there is no shortage of live music, food and fun for families and friends to enjoy.
A few years ago, Rabbi Moshe Luchins and his wife, Sheina, questioned why there was no festival celebrating southeastern Wisconsin’s Jewish community.
“There are festivals for everyone,” Sheina said. “There’s Polish Fest and Irish Fest and German Fest. We were like, ‘Where is the Jewish fest?'”
The Luchinses had no doubt people in the area were interested in Jewish food.
That winter, at various local grocery stores, they’d hosted “Taste of Kosher” tables, where shoppers could try free samples of matzah ball soup, challah, kugel and other traditional Jewish dishes.
“People really liked it and were asking where they could get more of this,” Sheina recalled.
She and her husband realized a food festival could be the answer.
In 2019, they launched Mequon’s first Jewish Food Festival. It offered a diverse, all-kosher menu, featuring traditional favorites like cabbage rolls, chicken schnitzel, potato knish and more. Children and families could enjoy face-painting and an inflatable zone and even make their own kosher dill pickles.
The event, held in Mequon’s Virmond Park, attracted more than 3,500 people. Rabbi Luchins, whose goal had been to fill the park’s parking lot, said he was blown away to meet people who had parked 15 to 20 minutes away to walk to and attend the festival.
Now in its fourth year, the Jewish Food Festival has outgrown its original venue.
The two-day celebration of Jewish food and culture takes place Sunday, Aug. 14, and Monday, Aug. 15, at Rotary Park, 4100 W. Highland Road, Mequon.
Made possible by community corporate sponsors, the festival is put on by the Peltz Center for Jewish Life, a division of Lubavitch of Wisconsin. Admission is free. Proceeds from food sales benefit the Peltz Center’s community outreach programs.
What’s on the menu?
Festival-goers can purchase a wide range of dishes including pastrami, corned beef and turkey deli sandwiches; sweet noodle kugel; matzah ball soup; and kosher hot dogs. A complete menu with prices is available at jewishfoodmequon.com.
All food is certified kosher and prepared by a team of more than 100 community volunteers.
The festival also offers a selection of Israeli and Middle Eastern options including chicken shawarma, falafel and fresh-baked pita bread, Rabbi Luchins said, an homage to Jewish history and heritage.
Luchins said Jewish food is unique because it has been influenced by such a wide range of cultures and peoples throughout history.
“Jewish food came about because the Jewish nation has been traveling and always on the move,” he said. “Living in Europe, Russia, Italy, Spain, we picked up different foods and called them ‘Jewish food,’ but a lot of different nationalities can relate to our food.”
Examples, he said, include stuffed cabbage, a Polish dish, and corned beef, a dish from Ireland.
New this year, the festival will serve a dinner special both evenings from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday night’s special is a slow-cooked meat dish called cholent, which Sheina Luchins described as a cross between a stew and a chili.
Rabbi Luchins said Jews have been eating cholent for over two millennia. Traditionally, the dish is served for Shabbat lunch on Saturday afternoons.
Jewish law prohibits cooking on the Sabbath, so many Jews throughout history have refrained from cooking on Fridays after sunset and on Saturdays. Nowadays, Sheina said, many people put something in the crockpot Friday afternoon so it’s warm and ready the next day.
“Cholent evolved because, back in the day when they only had coal ovens, they needed something that could slow-cook … and would be ready 24 hours later,” she said.
Families would bring their pot of uncooked but assembled cholent mixture to the local baker Friday before sundown. Then they’d come pick up the cooked cholent Saturday morning.
Music and entertainment
There will be live music performances throughout the festival, including a concert by Jewish folk singer Josh Engleson and his band Cedars of Lebanon on Sunday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
For $4 each, children can unlock unlimited access to the festival’s Expanded Fun Zone, which includes a giant slide, inflatable obstacle course, basketball and more.
Festival-goers also can visit a kosher petting zoo, which also teaches Jewish and non-Jewish visitors which animals are kosher and which aren’t, Rabbi Luchins said.
Other activities include a hands-on challah braiding demonstration and educational shows on kosher laws and the shofar horn — a trumpet typically made from a ram’s horn and blown on Rosh Hashanah.
Rabbi Luchins said he hopes the festival helps the community learn more about Jewish culture and traditions and connect with one another.
“Every year, people reconnect with people they haven’t seen for like 25 years. Maybe they went to school together, and they finally get to see each other again because (the festival) brings a lot of the community together,” the rabbi said. “That’s the goal — creating a fun community atmosphere with a Jewish educational component to it so people can understand us more.”
If you go
What: Jewish Food Festival
Where: Rotary Park, 4100 W. Highland Road, Mequon
When: Sunday, Aug. 14, and Monday, Aug. 15, from noon to 7 p.m.
Prices: Admission and parking are free. An expanded Fun Zone admission is $4 per child. Food prices range from $3 to $29.
Info (including a full menu): jewishfoodmequon.com.
What makes something kosher?
All the food at the Jewish Food Festival is kosher, meaning certain rules are followed in its preparation and consumption. What does it mean to be kosher?
Here are some basics:
- In Hebrew, the word kosher translates as “fit,” defining foods that are fit for consumption.
- All preparation of processed foods and eating establishments requires supervision or certification by a rabbi (or a kashrut supervision group).
- Keeping kosher means meat and dairy products are not prepared or consumed together. Separate utensils and serving items are used, so they are never mixed. There is a waiting period observed between eating meat and milk.
- A kosher animal must have “split hooves” and “chew its cud.” This includes cows, sheep, goats and deer.
- Pork and shellfish are forbidden.
- Animals used for meat must be slaughtered in a particular manner called shechitah. Certain parts of the animal, including the blood, are removed.
- Fruit, vegetables and grains must be insect-free.
Fun fact: Rabbi Luchins said that Coca-Cola keeps its recipe a closely-guarded secret. Only a small group of the company’s employees know the complete recipe for the soft drink. However, since Coca-Cola is certified kosher, that means at least two rabbis know a portion of the recipe.
“My understanding is they each know half the recipe, and they can’t share it,” Rabbi Luchins said. “(Coca-Cola) is willing to give out their secrets, so to say, to ensure that their product is kosher.”
To learn more about Jewish food and keeping kosher, visit chabad.org.