Jewish festival helps spur pride in heritage

September 06, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

After polishing off an overstuffed corned beef on rye sandwich, Brian Noel sat back in his folding chair and felt at home.

It was not always this way. His father was not a Jew, nor is his wife, Dawn. After he reached age 13, he rarely spent a Saturday in temple.

But, sitting comfortably amid the throng that attended the first day of the Jewish-American Festival yesterday, Mr. Noel said he felt pride in his heritage and wanted his children, Joey and Danielle, to feel the same.

"I'm still not sure we're as strong in our religion as we should be," said Mr. Noel, an Owings Mills resident. "But it's getting to be more important to me, and I think this kind of thing is just great."

Mr. Noel was among the estimated 10,000 people who strolled through the parking lot at Owings Mills Mall to socialize, listen to music, learn about the goings-on in their community and just have fun.

The annual event, one of the largest ethnic gatherings in the Baltimore area, offers Jews and non-Jews a chance to nibble on knishes, buy handmade prayer shawls and yarmulkes, and learn about Jewish history and culture.

But for young Jewish families such as the Noels, the festival seemed particularly important. It was a chance to rediscover their roots and show their children how strong and deep those roots can run.

"It's not very often you can go somewhere to some big event and feel it's really part of your world," said Anne Ladof of York, Pa., as Petunia the Clown made a balloon dog for her son, Liam Ladof-Anderson, 2.

"We want Liam to be comfortable and proud of his identity instead of becoming one of these people who shuffles around and tells Jewish jokes," she said.

It is not unusual for Jews to set aside their religious identity in their late teens and rediscover it when they start to rear their children, said Rabbi Shlomo Gottdiener of the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies.

"A lot of people are Jews but don't have a lot of background. They grow up in Judaism but don't know a lot about it," Rabbi Gottdiener said. "When they start to have children, they start to look at their own Judaism again."

Rabbi Gottdiener spent much of the day yesterday outside a booth inviting festival-goers to attend the center's "crash courses" in basic Judaism and Hebrew, including the free book "Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Survival Kit."

A renewed appreciation of Jewish heritage was one of the reasons Allan Taylor launched a brand of mondel bread last year under the name Grandma Ida's. Alongside the booths for the Knish Shop of Pikesville and "Gabe, the Falafel King," the Pikesville native offered free samples yesterday of the biscottilike bread made from his 85-year-old grandmother's recipe.

"I think a lot of the community is rediscovering its food," said Mr. Taylor. "We're putting out food like it was years ago."

LTC Not all of the activities had cultural connections. The popular events for children included a bouncing chamber where they could jump up and down on a trampolinelike surface, pony rides and face painting.

The volunteers from the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization soon learned that hearts, rainbows and baseballs were the works of art children most wanted to have painted on their faces. Music, traditional and pop, also was a favorite family activity.

Speaking of music, organizers said they have high hopes for Dr. Laz and the Cure, a musical act scheduled to perform today. Formed in the wake of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, the group features rapping and dancing blacks and Hasidic Jews from that troubled area of Brooklyn, N.Y.

"I've seen them twice, and they're great," said Tami Schultz, a festival volunteer.

Also performing today will be the "Rockin' Rabbi," Avraham Rosenblum, leader of the "World Famous Diaspora Yeshiva Band."

Anita Baum, co-chairperson for the 16th annual festival, said one of the event's best features is that it simply allows the more than 90,000 people in Baltimore's Jewish community a chance to talk.

"We hope people can get together and see people they don't see all year," Ms. Baum said. "We like to think of it as a reunion."

The festival continues through today from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is $3. Children 12 and under are admitted free.

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