Noshing at the GSO Jewish Festival

by Brian Clarey

On an overheated Indian summer afternoon – and one on which the Panthers are playing, no less – there is still a big crowd at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro for the first annual Jewish Festival. They’re milling around the fountain on the synagogue grounds, listening to folk music, tipping back bottles of water and Dr. Brown’s soda.

For a small Southern city, Greensboro has a lot of Jews. It will never be confused with Boca Raton or Kew Gardens, but the Jewish presence in Greensboro goes back to the Cones and the Schiffmans in the late 1800s, just a couple decades before this temple was founded.

Not everybody here is Jewish, of course. There are a few scattered goyim like me here to partake in a branch of world cuisine that is sometimes overlooked.

“We must suffer for our food,” A Jewish friend of mine said to me. He was kidding, but there is a degree of symbolism in Jewish cuisine, from the Passover seder where matzoh, eggs, shank bones and bitter herbs and vegetables tell the story of a persecuted but hearty tribe, to the traditional Chanukkah foods sizzled in oil, which provided the Miracle of Lights.

Today’s menu includes all the staples of a good Jewish diet: bagels with lox and a schmear, hummus, kosher dills and knish. There is Jewish penicillin – matzoh ball soup – and challah bread. There is Israeli wine. There is ruglach and babka and hamentaschen and those black-and-white cookies I used to get when I was a kid on Long Island.

As a Long Islander I have a bit of cred with the chosen people. Come to think of it, I have a big nose, excessive body hair, inexplicable guilt and my name is Brian, a Jewish name appropriated from the Gaelic – I’m practically Jewish. Except, you know, for the 2,000 years of suffering.

I’ve more than a passing familiarity with kosher hot dogs; I know the difference between corned beef and pastrami; and the knish, a potato-filled… I don’t know… dumpling?, was more ubiquitous on Long Island than chewing gum. In high school I worked in a deli that served them, and I would often slather one with mustard and take it down to the truck tunnels of the mall to nosh.

So when I’m confronted with these food choices, I know what to do. I make for the corned beef tent and wait my turn.

While the Jews may have taken my name, they gave something back to the Irish – corned beef, which my ancestors learned about in the 1800s in the delis of New York’s Lower East Side.

There is no corn in corned beef. The term refers to the coarse salt used in its preparation. Corned beef is pickled, which in the days before refrigeration gave it an almost supernatural shelf life. It is still prepared the same way, more or less: a long-muscle roast like brisket subjected to pickling and then boiling. In the real old days it was looked upon as a substitute for bacon.

Here at the festival it is sliced thinner than paper and stacked high between two slices of chewy rye bread. There’s got to be like two pounds of meat in this thing, worthy of Wolfie’s or Ben’s or even the Carnegie Deli itself, the mothership of Jewish delicatessens. It comes with a kosher dill spear and, because this is still North Carolina, a scoop of cole slaw.

I take mine with a dollop of Russian dressing and a frosty can of Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda – I would have gotten the celery soda if they had it because it is much better than it sounds.

I sit on the edge of the fountain and eat in the sunshine as the band plays the dreidel song – “If they can have Christmas decorations up when it’s ninety degrees,” the guitarist says, “then we can sing Chanukkah songs.” And all is good.

Then an old man comes up to me eating a black-and-white cookie.

“I believe it’s the best I ever had,” he says.

I nod.

“So are you Jewish, son?” he asks. I admit that I’m not.

“That’s okay,” he says. “You saved? You got Jesus in your heart?”

I look around uncomfortably. I’m not sure of all the rules, but it seems improper to be recruiting for the other team out here.

“Sure pal,” I say, and tear once again into my corned beef sandwich.

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