Sababa festival will highlight Jewish arts, culture, food

The Maccabeats will be one of several musical acts performing at the Sababa festival Oct. 14.   

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Jewish arts, music, food and culture will take center stage during a festival debuting this month. 

The inaugural Sababa Jewish Arts and Culture Festival will take place Sunday, Oct. 14, at Washington University. Sababa — the word is Modern Hebrew slang for “cool” or “awesome” — will bring more than 80 booths displaying the work of artists, culinary outlets and organizations, while a lineup of Jewish musical groups take the main stage. The festival is being planned by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the Jewish Community Center. 

About half the booths will focus on synagogues and other Jewish institutions in the area. More than two dozen others will host visual artists. 

“It is a little something for everybody,” said Stacy Smart, project coordinator at the J. “You can bring your kids, and they’ll be able to interact with different organizations while you learn about what that organization means or stands for or how you can get involved.”

Nearly 30 artists will display their works in media such as glass, jewelry, tapestries, weavings, watercolors and photography. Artists include Benjamin Lowder, who works in reclaimed wood and vintage metal signage; Tsila Schwartz, a calligrapher and Jewish folk artist who creates traditional ritual items such as ketubah marriage contracts; and Edo Rosenblith, whose work has been displayed at the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum and COCA. 

Fourteen food vendors will also be on hand. Kosher options will include Kohn’s, Mediterranean Grill, Café Coeur, Jon Rubin’s Kosher BBQ and the Dapper Doughnut. Non-kosher items will be available from Posh Nosh Deli, Crispy Edge, Serendipity, Garbanzo and Hot Box Cookies. 

Local band the Youngers of Zion headed by Will Soll will provide lunchtime klezmer followed by Jewish bluegrass artists Nefesh Mountain. The world-famous a-cappella Maccabeats will take the stage at 3 p.m. before folk-rock trio Zusha finishes off the afternoon. 

“They [Zusha]are kind of like a soul-funk-style band,” Smart said. “We’re super excited about them.”

Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of Jewish engagement and adult programs at the J, said that on a personal level, he’s looking forward to the music the most. 

“I want to stress to folks that this is a one-of-a-kind experience, something that is going to be really unique,” he said. “We do lots of good things in our community as individual organizations. There are different artists or musicians we showcase, but to bring it all together in a huge festival like this is a one-of-a-kind thing.”

The idea for Sababa first took shape with Andrew Rehfeld. The president and CEO of Jewish Federation remembered a similar event fondly from a decade he spent in Chicago. He said Kansas City does a similar Jewish cultural festival as well. 

He believes St. Louis might be just the right size for such a gathering.

“We are big enough to have the density needed to pull something like this off and small enough that we can really bring the community together around it,” he said.

He hopes the event might help create a rallying point to unify people in divisive times. 

“We live in a day that is so segmented and siloed that having a place that will bring our community together to celebrate being Jewish and make it clear why being Jewish is so important in a really positive and affirming way is exciting and energizing,” he said.

Organizers, including festival co-chairsDiane Balber and Alissa Duel, are hoping to draw a few thousand people to Sababa. But Rehfeld says future iterations could bring in as many as 10,000. If it becomes popular, it might run every other year.

“We’ll see,” he said. “The first time is always the experiment.”

Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the J, said her organization is happy to partner with the Federation on the project and thinks it fits in well with her agency’s other cultural mainstays, such as the Jewish book and film festivals. 

“I think Sababa represents an incredible opportunity for the Jewish community to come together and for the general community to celebrate Jewish culture on so many platforms,” she said. “We are programming experts here at the J, and this was a great opportunity for us to bring so many pieces of Jewish culture together.”

Wittels also hopes Washington University will prove to be a good venue for Sababa. 

“I’m looking forward to seeing thousands of people there having a really wonderful time enjoying the day, buying art, loving the food, and connecting with each other,” she said. “We thought it was a great central location and the layout of their campus was the perfect place to hold this inaugural event.”