Taste of Culture Puts Local Jewish Community in the Spotlight

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Mayor David Bowers (left) learns some dance steps
Mayor David Bowers (left) learns some dance steps

Local Colors kicked off its Taste of Culture lunchtime program at its new location on Wall Street besides the City Market building last month with music, dance and food from the Philippines. Last Friday, for the first time ever, Israel was the focal point.

 Jewish delicacies like kugel, ruggelah and hamentashen, along with Middle Eastern favorites like baklava and hummus, were served up in five-dollar plates.  “I don’t even know what that is,” said one teenaged boy when servers at the food table asked him about a choice of dessert items.

 Proceeds went to a trip being arranged for local students and World War II veterans next spring, “The March of the Living.”  That group will tour Nazi death camps in Poland, including Auschwitz; many will then go on to the nation created after the Holocaust, the Jewish state of Israel.

 Local Colors, better know for the annual event at Elmwood Park that includes the Parade of Nations, was founded by Pearl Fu, the Chinese immigrant who wanted to showcase the valley’s diversity. Taste of Culture was created in 2006 and takes place outdoors during the warmer months.

 Roanoke City Parks and Recreation, which is involved with the program, asked if “Taste” could be moved from Century Plaza, tucked in an alcove across from Fire Station #1 on Church Avenue, to Wall Street. It is held on the second Friday of each month through October, from 11am – 1:30 pm. Next up is a brand new country – literally – South Sudan. Norway, which has appeared at Taste of Culture before, rounds out this year’s lunchtime program in October.

 Temple Emanuel and the Beth Israel Synagogue helped coordinate the program last week and are raising money for the March of the Living tour.  Local Colors board president Jay Saunders said Taste of Culture has featured at least 30 countries since it debuted. “With Local Colors becoming one of the more prominent festivals in the valley, they requested that we come down here for higher exposure,” said Saunders of the City’s request that Taste of Culture moved to the market area.

 In light of events like the mass murder at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Saunders feels it is “critical,” that people reach out to understand other cultures and religions. “Its essential for our mutual survival. The world is getting to be a smaller place all the time. We need to know our neighbors. Mark Twain said that if more people could travel there would be no more wars.”

 Jeffrey Rigdon – one of the fellows dressed like a horned Viking at local parades with the Vikings of the Valley group – helped Fu get Taste of Culture off the ground. The San Francisco native grew up in a multicultural environment and found the opportunity to meet a diverse group of people with Local Colors when he moved to Roanoke.

 “You get to taste the cuisine of a country, as if you were there,” said Rigdon as ethnic Jewish music blared from speakers in the background. “Lets enjoy each other’s history …it comes to people being people. There’s no reason we [all] can’t be friends.”

Countries large and small, from Polynesia to Brazil and Lithuania have all taken part in Taste of Culture.  Rigdon is also helping to develop an international festival along Williamson Road next May, which will include an event at Happy’s Flea Market and involves merchants on the commercial corridor.

 Roanoke City Mayor David Bowers, who gamely tried his hand at an ethnic dance, asked attendees to “celebrate our Jewish heritage. We’re very proud of our Jewish community here in Roanoke.” Bowers also asked people to say a silent prayer for Pearl Fu, who was “under the weather,” and not present. Fu has been slowed by Parkinson’s in recent years.

 Lori Strauss and Kira Gurevich were on hand to promote The March of the Living. She called the Taste of Culture event “a commitment by the whole Jewish community [in Roanoke].” Strauss said students from all over the world will take part in the march from the Auschwitz to Birkenau camps, before many of them head to Israel. That’s one reason they were raising money by selling lunches last Friday. “We have a lot of money to raise [for local students from the two congregations],” noted Strauss.

 Gurevich went on the March of the Living tour several years ago. Her youngest daughter will go next spring. “It’s a lifetime experience. You learn a lot being there, knowing your history, where we are coming from. We just want to make sure the Holocaust will never repeat.” People who lined up to buy lunches were all doing their small part to make sure that those who go to Poland next spring will never forget either.

By Gene Marrano