Picture-perfect day for To Life!

rachel freedenberg | staff writer

It was a nearly cloudless day in Palo Alto, and the air was filled with sound: tekiahs coming from the Chabad Shofar Factory, stomps and shouts from the Firebird Dance Theater, freestyle rapping and Cole Porter tunes.

Falafel balls sizzled in vats of oil, teens sank their teeth into ice cream sandwiches three inches thick and children ran around with tongues dyed blue from cups of shaved ice.

The ninth annual To Life! A Jewish Cultural Street Festival — which shut down three blocks of California Avenue in Palo Alto on Sept. 21 — drew thousands from all over the Bay Area, including musicians, artists, dancers and Jewish community professionals. And then there were those who came simply to enjoy good food and music, and to wander through the more than 70 booths showcasing everything from silk-screened tallits to leather purses.

Around 10,000 people attended To Life! over the course of the day, estimated Amy Grossmann, the director of street festival and special events at the Albert L. Schultz JCC. The JCC, along with a number of other Jewish organizations, sponsored the Sunday event.

The festival had three constantly rollicking performance stages, which meant that attendees had some difficult choices to make: Jewish hip-hop or a Yiddish chorus? Family dance party or an Israeli rock band? Audiences whirled and twirled to a Yiddish freylekh and sang along to Great American Songbook tunes performed by the HaShirim Singers, a local Jewish community choir. Some shows became standing-room only as the crowds grew.

In the “kids section,” three moon-bounces, a rock-climbing wall, a henna tattoo booth and art projects kept children busy throughout the day.

Over at the Koret Tents of Community, dozens of local Jewish organizations set up shop. Representatives from local day schools, synagogues and nonprofits shmoozed with members of the community and gave away pens, magnets and other trinkets emblazoned with their logos.

Further down the avenue, the artists’ booths beckoned with brightly colored paintings, luscious silk tapestries and intricate ketubahs. There was a particular buzz around the Marshall’s Farm honey booth as patrons crowded around to try a taste of the sweet stuff.

The festival wound down around 5 p.m., but the party wasn’t over. Close to 300 20- and 30-somethings flocked to Illusions Fayrouz, a nearby Lebanese restaurant and club, for an after-party called After-Life. A table was piled high with fluffy pita bread, dolmas, babaganoush and other Middle Eastern delicacies. The Peatot, a band that had performed during the day at To Life!, got the crowd dancing with covers of classic Israeli songs, and some original compositions.

Grossmann deemed the after-party a huge success. “At the JCC we’re trying to develop more programs for a young adult crowd, and this was a great way of doing that,” she said.

Overall, the day seemed to please everyone, from those behind the scenes to the crowds that came to dance, sing, shop and eat.

“Attendance was definitely up from the previous year, and people stayed a lot longer,” said Grossmann, in her second year as festival director. “The weather was absolutely amazing. People were smiling — it was a great day.”

Faces around the festival

Yonatan Gutstadt

From: Berkeley

Years at To Life!: Three or four

His act: Hip-Hop Shabbat, aka the Original Jewish Gangsters, who set prayers like Modeh Ani and Adom Olam to hip-hop and reggae beats

Influences: Bob Marley, Oakland rappers like Tupac

His take on To Life!: “This is one of our favorite places to play, because it’s a lot of families and a lot of people who ordinarily wouldn’t be exposed to our music. It’s nice that they get to be here and check it out … It’s a rare opportunity to go hang out on the street with a bunch of Jews.”

Ronald and Maxine Brody

From: San Mateo

Years at To Life!: Ronald: “We come here every year.”

Favorite Koret Tents of Community booth: Ronald: “I like the community centers.” Maxine: “We like the j.!”

Thoughts on the day: Ronald: “I’m very proud of the local community that supports us all, and I’m glad other people can come and see it. It’s a nice respite from the workplace.”

Karen Berman

From: Berkeley

Years at To Life!: First time

Her station: Henna tattoo booth

Favorite henna style: “Arabic — it’s bold and floral and very improvisational.”

What does it take to do your job?: “Patience! I think for me it takes really having

a good knowledge of the designs so you can do the designs quickly and off the top of your head. You have to have a steady hand … and [learn] the composition, how to fill up a space and have it look good.”

Orlando Murillo

From: Berkeley, originally Nicaragua

Years at To Life!: Two

His station: Tante’s (falafel, garlic fries and knishes)

Hardest part of the festival: “Breaking things down at the end of the day, loading and unloading — it’s a lot of physical labor. You have to move the grills, they’re about 80 to 100 pounds. Once we set up, it’s easy, like cooking at home.”

Best part of the day: “People are smiling! That’s important. I’m just here, making falafel, making sure everybody eats.”

How much falafel did he make?: “Thousands and thousands … about 75 to 100 pounds. That’s a lot of falafel!”

What does he think of his falafel?: “I had a couple — they’re good! There’s a spice to it, but it’s not the Mexican-style spice. It’s got a little herb to it. It’s really good.”

Michael Radwin

From: Palo Alto

Years at To Life!: Four or five

Favorite part of the festival: “The shofar factory — I’ve never seen it before. If it’s been here in past years, I haven’t noticed it. But it’s pretty cool!”

His next stop: “We’re going to look for some wonderful treat for our 3-year-old.”

Thoughts on the festival: “It’s wonderful that we have this right here in Palo Alto every year — the week before Rosh Hashanah is always a good time.”