Joyful Sukkot festival offers crafts, cuisine, carousing

The sweet, sad, but lively klezmer clarinet of the Ellis Island Old World Folk Band could have served as a musical metaphor for Sunday's Sukkot festival in San Francisco. The air was breezy, the sky was overcast, but the mood was joyful.

Music wafted over the crowd of hundreds of people who strolled down Arguello Boulevard for the "Festival of the Booths," sponsored by Terry Pimsleur & Co., Congregation Emanu-El and the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.

People listened to the music of Ellis Island and other live bands, checked out the crafts, and sampled latkes, falafel and other ethnic foods at the all-day event.

At one booth, the music of Rebbe Soul (aka Bruce Burger) offered jazzy, new age-styled versions of traditional Jewish music. This appealed to Pamela Milstein, who lives in the inner Richmond neighborhood where the festival was held. "I walked by the booth several times and the music really caught me," she said, putting the autographed compact disc she bought alongside her other festival purchases — a necklace whose centerpiece was an Israeli coin, and two breadcutters she purchased as gifts.

"There's a nice variety of art to choose from here," Milstein observed. "The festival is one of the few places I've been able to find art pieces that are Jewish-themed." Among those pieces were various menorot made from a variety of materials — brass, copper, glass and ceramic — handwoven tallitot, and Lila Wahrhaftig's handmade paper amulets.

Wahrhaftig, the artist who created the design that served as the festival's logo, explained that each amulet has a specific meaning. "This one is for success," she said, pointing to a piece that was round and flat, "this one is for new beginnings, and this one is for general protection." Indicating the Hebrew letters on each amulet, she said, "the acronyms are very old and go back a couple thousand years. They are from verses in the Bible that have been interpreted as giving different kinds of protection. There are about 135 different traditional Jewish acronyms for protection, either from the Bible or from the Torah."

Along with serious art pieces were many humorous items — decorative ceramic fish and frogs, jackets and jeans painted with The Cat in the Hat, Winnie-the-Pooh and Beverly Eigner's Judaica.

Eigner displayed her bow ties, neckties, suspenders, and table runners decorated with menorot, dreidels, and Stars of David, noting proudly that workers from Saul's Delicatessen in Berkeley wear her ties when they cater Chanukah parties.

If Eigner's booth exemplified the lighter side of crafts on display, Bruce Avinoam Glansbeek's glass designs showcased the more serious. He and his wife, Shari Wyne, traveled from their home in Medford, Ore., to participate in the festival. Among Glansbeek's art glass are beautiful mezzuzah holders, glass menorot, and Star of David string ties.

At the urging of his wife, Glansbeek gave up his job as a commercial fisherman in Alaska eight months ago to work full-time on creating glass art. Now his merchandise can be found at many Bay Area Judaica stores. "It's different from anything else," he said of his artworks. "Nothing is sandblasted or painted. Each piece is actually carved out of the glass."

At the Sukkot festival, there was a lot of food to sample, including barbecue and churros. But the longest lines were for the latkes and spinach knishes, located near the entrance to the courtyard of Congregation Emanu-El. Inside the courtyard, children sat at low tables and colored pictures of the harvest.

The eight-day Sukkot celebration commemorates both the autumn harvest and the time the wandering Israelites, liberated from Egyptian bondage, dwelt in the desert in temporary booths.

In a wooden sukkah decorated with apples, squash, and dried blossoms, people waved the lulav (palm branch) in the four directions of the compass, symbolizing the dispersion of the Jews after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 BCE.

As he made his way through the festival, Philipe Chouraki peered at the booth of hanging "sky chairs," swinging chair-hammocks and footrests hanging from ropes that were soothing several children at the festival. His toddlers, exploring the propeller-topped caps on sale at one booth, were hardly ready to be suspended in midair. "This is fun," said Chouraki, who grew up in France, where he said Jewish festivals are scarce. "We've met people we know here. It's a nice community feeling."