Jews to mix Israeli spice into citys Middle East festival

Eighteen months ago, Father Gregory Ofiesh of St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church phoned Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El to seek the Reform synagogue's participation in a memorial service for the Hebron massacre.

The temple could not comply at the time, but the priest's request spurred Pearce to eventually speak at the San Francisco church, which has many Arab American parishioners. Ofiesh returned the gesture at the San Francisco synagogue.

Pearce recalls he urged the city's Arabs and Jews to "find things that unite us rather than divide us," he says.

Now they have. U.C. Berkeley Hillel recently accepted an invitation from Ofiesh to represent Israel for the first time at the third annual Middle Eastern Festival at St. Nicholas, Friday through Sunday, Sept. 22-24.

"Any new doors we might be opening are very exciting to us," says Marilyn Habeeb, executive secretary to Ofiesh.

In the past two years, the fair has largely attracted an Arab American audience, but festival organizers hope Jews will join Christian and Muslim Arab-Americans at this year's event.

"I'm hoping the Jewish community comes out," says Peter Altman of the Israel Project, which with the Northern California Hillel Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council will represent Israel at the festival. "This is a really nice change."

Altman believes this year's fair will set a precedent for future gatherings and change the flavor of the festival, which Habeeb says is expected to bring in 3,000 people.

After the first two festivals, Ofiesh got letters from Jews asking why they were not among the fair's participants. Why perpetuate the divisions between Jews and Arabs, they wondered? Why not celebrate similarities?

For the first time, Israeli dance, food and music will permeate the fair. Photographs, maps and cultural information about Israel will be displayed as well, Altman says.

Israel Project and Hillel members are still looking for musicians to play Israeli music, for the upcoming event. "It's a scramble, but it's important enough to make it work," Altman says.

Among Jewish touches in this year's fair are imported Israel foods: challah and honey to mark Rosh Hashanah, roasted eggplant cured on the spot with olive oil, and Israeli sheep cheese and crackers. Arab and Jewish participants will also stand side by side to prepare all the festival's food in the church's kitchen.

"I think that should be quite a scene. That might even be a big precedent," Altman says.

The food, therefore, may not be kosher, but the event will be. Because the second day of the fair will be held on Shabbat, Altman says the Israeli-Jewish booth will be staffed only on Sunday. On Friday and Saturday, the Israeli fare will be available free. A sign will explain the absence of staffers.

Pearce is hopeful the fair will signal the start of a new relationship between the city's Arabs and Jews.

"If we can learn to do more together, maybe it will be infectious and spread to others things," he says.