In May 1993, Synagogue Agudath Achim in Little Rock held a Jewish Ethnic Food Festival on its parking lot at midday on a Sunday. The traditional synagogue offered ethnic and kosher baked foods and an exhibit titled "We Are America's Jews," including photos, drawings and artifacts documenting the contributions of Jewish people to American life from Columbus to the end of the Civil War.
Five years passed. Then in June 1998, the Jewish Federation of Arkansas conducted its official first Jewish Food Festival. This was a hit. Organizers planned for 1,000 guests but about 1,200 came. By midafternoon the hummus was gone, the kebabs were gone, there were only a few hot dogs left, and in the kitchens, cooks were busy processing potatoes to sustain the latke supply.
Congregation leaders led tours of the synagogue, asking men to cover their heads with a skullcap, the kippah, and letting visitors crowd around the Torah, the parchment scroll containing the five books of Moses written in Hebrew.
Dr. Milton Waner led a band, a makeshift crew of Arkansas Children's Hospital employees who called themselves The Awful Falafels — an offshoot of a group called Arrhythmia. Arrhythmia specialized in rock standards, Waner said, but for the occasion The Awful Falafels had learned Jewish folk songs. As the band broke into "A Hard Day's Night," event organizer Valerie Steinberg joked, "You didn't know the Beatles were Jewish, did you?"
Although not always held annually, the Jewish Food Festival grew over the ensuing years. Starting in 1999, the fundraiser included a spiral-bound cookbook by the Agudath Achim Sisterhood, "Let My People Eat." An exhibit suggesting the Western Wall in Jerusalem collected messages to be taken to the real wall; and visitors dropped their unspent festival scrip in tzedakahs (charity boxes) so the monetary value of the tickets could be donated to various organizations.
The venue changed to the River Market pavilions and then to War Memorial Stadium, where hula-hopping was a feature one year. But always the food was a big draw, including rugelach, strudel, hamantaschen, blintzes, latkes, falafel, hot dogs, cabbage rolls, hummus, babka, honey cakes, bagels with lox, chocolate-covered matzo, chicken liver, braised brisket ... .