To Life! Festival:Jewish culture comes to Palo Alto streets with music, art, food

With the sounds of klezmer, the aroma of tsimmes and shwarma, and the handiwork of Judaica artists and craftspeople, Palo Alto’s California Avenue will once again become a Jewish neighborhood on Sunday, Oct. 24, when thousands of spectators descend on the city for “To Life! A Jewish Cultural Street Festival.”

The fifth annual fair, one of the largest Jewish events in the West, runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. It features several stages for entertainment, cooking demonstrations, hands-on crafts, kids’ activities, a shuk for shopping, and plenty of noshing. Admission is free.

To avoid the unseasonal heat waves of the last couple of years, the fair was scheduled for late October, well after the High Holy Days but conveniently timed for Chanukah shopping, according to festival director Stephanie Brown, who showed her artwork in last year’s fair and moved to the Bay Area to head this year’s event.

“In the outreach business, they call this a low-barrier event,” she said. “It’s on a public street. There’s no admission. You don’t have to self-identify as Jewish. You can just wander in. The beauty of this festival is it’s not about politics or your level of observance — the things that divide Jews — but it celebrates the things that unite us, our heritage and our culture.”

Thousands of miles from the Jewish epicenters of Jerusalem and New York, the fair takes on the flavors of California, with cooking demonstrations by local chefs, musical entertainment by RebbeSoul, YaElah and Za’atar; and a bevy of local artists: Among them are calligrapher-paper sculptor Lisa Rauchwerger, watercolorist Nina Bonos, mezuzah artist Aimee Golant and Judaica jewelry designer Eva Strauss Rosen.

Israeli artists and craftspeople will also spice up the event with wares from the Holy Land, from fine art to tallitot and housewares. Returning again are Gabriela, hand-weavers of tallitot and Judaica in Old Jaffa; Israeli publisher-bookseller Steimatzky, with books in Hebrew and English; and Kakadu, Israeli creators of colorful decorative objects.

With more than 100 jury-selected artists from around the world, the festival will showcase paintings and photographs, fabric art metalwork, jewelry, glass and mixed media.

In an event designed for the entire family, there will be a stage for seniors as well as one for children, with folk singers, puppet players, storytellers and, for the first time, a Jewish American Idol competition. Back this year is an inflatable fun house, a popular attraction for kids.

Hungry? Local chefs Jesse Cool of Flea Street Cafe, Howard Bulka of Marche Restaurant, both in Menlo Park, will present demonstrations on the cooking stage, with a Jewish flavor. Other foodies are Mat Schuster, Barbara Gottesman and Joanne Donsky.

Come hear stories about the role of food in their cultural traditions. Rounding out the kosher hot dog, bagel and lemonade offerings from street vendors will be falafel and grilled Middle Eastern skewered meats. All food is kosher or vegetarian.

Finally, the Tents of Community will feature Jewish agencies and organizations, including synagogues, Jewish community federations and Jewish Community Centers.

The fair, between El Camino Real and the California Avenue CalTrain station, is presented by New Bridges to Jewish Community, an outreach division of the Albert L. Schultz, Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, and sponsored by a number of Jewish organizations and community groups. Information: or (650) 852-3553.