Eva Winston of York serves matzo ball soup at last year’s York Jewish Food Festival. A regular volunteer, Winston will be working the festival again
Eva Winston of York serves matzo ball soup at last year's York Jewish Food Festival. A regular volunteer, Winston will be working the festival again Sunday. (York Dispatch file photo)

When your mouth starts watering in line Sunday afternoon and you take your first bite of unbelievably juicy corned beef on rye, take a quick second to thank all of the staff, volunteers and baleboostehs who make the York Jewish Food Festival possible.

"Baleboosteh," explains Linda Seligson, the adult cultural and contemporary director for the York Jewish Community Center, is a Yiddish term for an excellent or praiseworthy homemaker — the folks who know their way about the kitchen. For the food festival, the JCC calls on some of the same community helpers each year to deliver traditional Jewish deli fare. Some of the work begins weeks in advance in the community center's kosher kitchen.

In the kitchen: For Vivian Lazar of York Township, it's her fourth year gathering with the other cooks to make the noodle kugel — her favorite, she says — and a host of other dishes.

"We're having all sorts of sliced pastrami and corned beef, and potato knishes. We started about a month and a half ago, where we prepare brisket. We cook everything, slice it and deep freeze it, store it in the juices," Lazar says. "Plus we bake. We've been baking for the last week, all sorts of cookies and pastries."

Even the festival's behind-the-scenes work is a joy for the volunteers.

"It's fun to get together with the ladies," she says, admitting the dishes hold a family secret or two. "Generations pass down recipes, mother to daughter. We do the same traditional recipes."

The center outsources a few of the big jobs, like the loaves of kosher-parve bread for the 250 or so pounds of kosher brisket, Seligson says. The bread has to be made parve, or dairy-free, because milk and meat cannot mix in a proper kosher meal.

"We have a baker in Baltimore who makes it especially for us," Seligson says. "He also makes our babka (a sweet, rich, yeasted cake), and it is like a slice of heaven."

Barry Shapiro of Spring Garden Township serves brisket during last year’s York Jewish Food Festival.
Barry Shapiro of Spring Garden Township serves brisket during last year's York Jewish Food Festival. ( York Dispatch file photo)

The center has adjusted the traffic flow so the hungry crowd forms two lines and enters through the gymnasium, with the desserts moved into their own area near the vending machines across the hall.

"We have new kosher pickles this year," she adds. "The sandwich makers really keep (the lines) moving."

On the front line: One of those sandwich makers is Lou Lavetan of York Township. He has been on the sandwich line since the beginning, missing only one year in the festival's long history.

"You'll get the people really engaged," he says. "They don't know what kosher food is, they don't know what corned beef is — it's fun to educate them ... to see them enjoy something they've never tried. Those that come back year after year, they know exactly what they want."

After so many years on the line, Lavetan knows all the tricks to serve quality sandwiches hour after hour.

"It's really important that you keep turning it so the meat stays moist," he says. "If you keep peeling it off the top, it gets cold and a little dry."

As a sandwich maker, he relishes the interactions with patrons and other volunteers.

"Making the sandwich is easy. It's the people who bring the food in from the kitchen who have the hardest job. We yell across the room at them, 'hey, we're out of pastrami,'" and they hustle to deliver, he says. "Chaos is standard equipment."

The food is a good part of the fun, but the festival atmosphere contributes, too.

"This is not some stuffy little restaurant," he says. Attendees "can relax and have a good time."

Beyond food: In addition to the matzo ball soup and kugel and knishes and babka and other edible delights, the festival features a variety of vendors and the Avalon String Band Mummers.

The mummer tradition started back in 2010 with the community center's 100th anniversary celebration. In prior years, the food festival featured klezmer music. But the Avalon String Band's "Fiddler on the Roof" costumes during the Philadelphia Mummers Parade had caught Seligson's attention, and now the group makes the trip to York every year to perform and teach the mummers strut at the festival.

"I got a bus full of mummers," Seligson says. "I always end up strutting with them."

Jewish Food Festival

The York Jewish Food Festival runs from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at the York Jewish Community Center, 2000 Hollywood Drive, York Township.

The festival features a variety of traditional kosher Jewish deli foods, including sandwiches, sides and desserts. Food may be purchased for dine-in or carryout; the fundraiser is cash-only, so don't forget to stop at the ATM first.

A variety of vendors will have tables set up. The Avalon String Band Mummers will perform, and attendees are encouraged to learn the mummers strut.

Admission is free. All faiths are welcome.

For more information, call 843-0918 or visit www.yorkjcc.org.

— Reach Mel Barber at mbarber@yorkdispatch.com.