Deli Days Becomes the Idaho Jewish Cultural Festival 

Annual pastrami-palooza expands to include multiple events

Oliver Thompson pulled some strings to book Millie and the Mentshn at the Idaho Jewish Cultural Festival.

Patrick Sweeney

Oliver Thompson pulled some strings to book Millie and the Mentshn at the Idaho Jewish Cultural Festival.

Pastrami had lost its lustre. That was the hard truth Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel bit into last year, after several decades of hosting its annual Deli Days fundraiser. Though the event was more popular than ever with the public, volunteer kvetching was as abundant as the kugel.

But congregant Oliver Thompson, who had handled the music bookings for the Jewish food festival, had an idea to liven up the nosh-fest. Instead of taking the limited budget and spreading it among a variety of musicians, he wanted to bring in one smokin' band: Millie and the Mentshn, from Bellingham, Wash.

An earlier incarnation of the band had played Boise when the synagogue was moved 10 years prior, and nearly all present remember it as one meshuga party with everyone out hora-ing it up in the streets.

Thompson saw bringing the band back as the first of a series of steps to expand Deli Days into a larger Jewish Cultural Festival, something congregants had discussed for years.

"The first baby step I thought I'd do was that if I'm going to drag a band all the way down here from Bellingham, let's get them to play more than once," Thompson said.

So he did and, within months, Deli Days had snowballed into the inaugural Idaho Jewish Cultural Festival, which will take place at various locations from Wednesday, June 19-Sunday, June 23.

In addition to the pastrami-palooza Boise knows and loves, the IJCF will feature an exhibition of Israeli art and a music and dance workshop at Boise Art Museum, a public Shabbat celebration in Julia Davis Park, a screening of a Jewish film at The Flicks, a special multimedia dinner theater event and multiple performances from Millie and the Mentshn.

Though the cultural buffet runs deep, one of the standout offerings is the Jewish Dinner Theater event that will be held Wednesday, June 19, at Sapphire Room inside the Riverside Hotel. The presentation, Heavy Mettle: From Shtetl to Tin Pan Alley, features Millie and the Mentshn performing popular American songs from Jewish immigrant composers like Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin, mashed up with the Eastern European gypsy-jazz and folk songs that they evolved from. Singer Millie Johnson will also intersperse a narration of Jewish migration curated from the journals of her family members, who immigrated to America between 1880 and 1910.

"A lot of these tunes were written by immigrants and what we'll try to show is ... where the thread of that music has real strong connection to the country that it came from," Johnson said.

Those songs represent the ways that immigrant communities kept their traditions and bonds alive in a new country.

"Those things kept the people steady, so even though they left the country they were from, it kept them together," she said.

Later in the week, Sunday, June 23, The Flicks will host a screening of The Rabbi's Cat, an animated French film about a cat that learns to speak from swallowing a parrot and uses that ability to express his desire to convert to Judaism. While the plot seems slightly dubious considering the size of the average parrot, festival organizers said the film was chosen because it seemed fun and that there were already enough morose examinations of the diaspora, or the Israel-Palestine conflict. Thompson is hesitant to call it a film festival, because it's a single film, but he said that's certainly an area he'd like to expand on.

Another component of the festival came to Thompson by good luck. Boise Art Museum was already scheduled to open an exhibit from Kehinde Wiley Saturday, June 22, which features a series of painted portraits of Israeli men. BAM worked with Thompson to incorporate the exhibit into the festival with an extra display featuring artifacts on loan from the congregation and a performance from Millie and the Mentshn.

Thompson, for his part, couldn't be happier with how things are working out and is already plotting how to expand the festival in coming years.

"I think it's trying to figure out how to represent every discipline," Thompson said of the festival's goals. "Whether it's academic or creative, and let's see if we can tie it to what's happening in the Treasure Valley or beyond."

But Thompson also acknowledged there's the possibility that a community which saw putting on a small food festival as a headache might not see quintupling the amount of work as much of a mitzvah.

"If it becomes too much of a chore, I'll pull back," Thompson said. "But I don't have enough experience developing festivals to know at what point it becomes a chore."

For now, at least, Thompson feels more energized than weighed down by the tasks at hand, and he's eager to share his culture with the community at large.

"I liken to the Basque community," Thompson said. "There's a lot of pride. There's a lot of awareness. There's a lot of appreciation of the contributions that Basques have made in the Boise area. I think the Jews should also be proud and do what they can to strengthen those ties to the community."

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