Sunday afternoon at Temple Beth Shalom was just like stopping by a Jewish friend’s house at dinner time - on a really large scale.
More than 2,500 people were greeted with open arms, entertained with classic Yiddish humor and music and fed until they could eat no more.
“This is what we Jews do. We invite others into our home and give them a meal,” said Dennis Twigg, chairman of the dinner. “There is wonderful ‘haimish’ here, which means it is a warm, nice feeling just to be here.”
It took virtually every member of the temple to put on the affair, which has grown into a community event. Temple members sold tickets, ushered the guests, waited on tables, washed dishes and provided non-stop entertainment for the eight-hour affair.
But the nerve center of the 55-year-old tradition was the kitchen. There, Yiddish wisecracks were flying in fine form as cooks and their assistants prepared the kosher meal.
Head chef and chief kvetch (complainer) Al Berman unified two shifts of 18 workers each into a production line that would rival any fast-food chain.
He began each four-hour shift with a brief lecture. His troops were to be polite, his kitchen kept clean.
“No noshing (snacking),” warned a sign on the wall.
In defiance and out of complete starvation, several teenage servers repeatedly begged for knishes or kuchen to snack on during their shift.
“No, remember our guests,” Berman chided the teens.
Weighing heavy on his mind was last year’s record turnout. At the end of the day, less than 8 pounds of beef were left, out of 1,200 pounds.
More than 300 people sat down to the kosher meal every hour Sunday. Parking spread more than 15 blocks into the surrounding neighborhood. The line of ticketholders snaked out the front door.
Back in the kitchen, workers couldn’t see through the steam to the crowd outside - and it was just as well. They were working as fast as possible, putting out a meal every 12 seconds.
Knish master Joel Lassman put one pan bearing 36 of the breaded potato concoctions into the oven, while pulling out another. He’s done that for eight hours straight, three years in a row.
“I try and find the right job for the right personality,” Berman joked about Lassman’s repetitive chore.
“Make sure you spell his last name right,” another cook shouted back at Berman. “It’s spelled S-c-h-l-e-p.”
And on and on it went Sunday.
“This dinner kind of sets the standard” for Jewish hospitality, Lassman said.
“What schmaltz,” someone shouted at his sentimentality.
One of the few temple members native to Spokane, Lassman has seen the kosher dinner evolve from its humble origins.
Members of the old temple, at Fourth and Adams, started the event in 1940. When that building was torn down to make way for Interstate 90, the kitchen at the newer temple on East 29th was built specifically with the dinner in mind.
The recipes are as old as the dinner itself, said Ethel Grossman, the wizard behind the carrot tzimmes (350 pounds of carrots, 75 pounds of prunes).
“The recipes truly have been handed down from generation to generation,” Grossman said. “They get modified every year, with a lot of love.”
All joking aside, temple members said the dinner is one of the few occasions outsiders get a glimpse into Jewish life in Spokane.
“People don’t know who Jews are in this town,” Twigg said.
Although there have been temples in Spokane since 1900, few Jewish families are natives of the Inland Northwest. Many have moved here from larger cities and left behind larger Jewish communities.
Often, they miss that when they come to Spokane, said Twigg, who moved here three years ago.
“We can’t get kosher food here. We can’t really walk around town in our yarmulkes (head coverings),” he said. “But we’ve made our own community here. That’s why we open it up to everyone else.”
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