Corky Siegel headlines the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival

Corky Siegel headlines the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

An array of sights always locks in on the senses for attendees of the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival in the Cook County Forest Preserve next to Morton Grove.

But on Sunday, June 10, smells and sounds may overwhelm the usual impact on the Jewish consumer. The olfactory and the aural will be stimulated along with the visual due to a pair of headlining events: a kosher barbecue contest near the festival entrance; and performances by half-century Chicago blues master Corky Siegel and two-time Grammy Award winner Howard Levy.

Festival impresario Michael Lorge has a variety of attractions lined up as always. Fortunately, when visitors cannot follow up the aroma by consuming the actual award-winning barbecue – the look (and smell), but do not touch concept applies — they’ll have no shortage of other kosher goodies to satisfy the palate.  And the soulful Siegel will be augmented by a team-full of singers, comics and other entertainers.

The festival runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on June 10. Entrance is from Oakton Street into the forest preserve two blocks west of Lehigh. Plenty of parking is available on site. A $5 per person donation is suggested.

“We say it’s a fusion of Jewish Chicago,” said Lorge, who has presided over the festival since it began in 1980.

“When you have a fusion, you’re going to hear sound. You’ll visually see art and things. And this year, you’re really going to smell and (later) taste the food.

“You’ll walk in and right there is the stage with all the powerful music, and then you’ll smell the barbecue. You’ll want to taste it.”

But the festival could only purchase enough kosher brisket and turkey to stock the contest. They’d be quickly eaten out of house and home if put up for public consumption. The aroma of the contest thus will serve as a kind of appetizer for the main courses on hand.

“We’ve gone out of our way this year to have more kosher food vendors than ever before,” said Lorge. “We’ll have kosher barbecue for sale (prepared earlier), and some kosher Mexican. In all, there are 20 restaurants with everything you can imagine. They’re trying to keep the menus at each station a little smaller so the lines move faster. Rather than having 20 items, each vendor’s going to have three or four.”

Official poster of this year’s festival.

Attendees are not attending some country-fair-level barbecue event. The kosher contest is supervised by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, its pedigree emanating from one of the barbecue capitals of the country.

“Teams applied on-line and a lot was word of mouth,” said Steve Franklin, a longtime assistant at the festival. The Kansas City Barbecue Society recently expanded to include supervision of kosher contests. Its website is self-explanatory:“[KCBS is] a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and enjoying barbeque, [and] is the world’s largest organization of barbeque and grilling enthusiasts with over 20,000 members worldwide.  KCBS sanctions over 500 barbeque contests worldwide.” 

The society has distinct rules for kosher competition, calling for separate presentation and tasting of smoked or roasted chicken, beef ribs, turkey and brisket.

“To uphold kashrut and fairness, with the generous support of donors, the festival is providing all the meat, spices and utensils the teams will utilize,” Franklin said. “Everyone is starting off with the same cuts of meat. The teams will supply their own wood and charcoal.”

Some 10 teams have entered the contest. Sixteen KCBS-qualified officials will be on hand for supervision and judging of the entries. Included are 12 judges, two table captains and two KCBS representatives. Festival steering committee member Jim Weiskopf, a keen barbeque enthusiast, will actually run the contest.

The teams likely will work the equivalent of two days prepping the meat. Coating and brining according to their own recipes will take place prior to Shabbat. The teams will take their Shabbat rest break while meats will be refrigerated during that time.

Then the teams will endure their own Midnight Specials, returning to the forest-preserve site later on Saturday night to start cooking and smoking up to the actual presentation Sunday afternoon. Each team will be called for judging at half-hour intervals.

“Prizes will include trophies, certificates and, most importantly, major bragging rights,” said Franklin.

Michael Lorge

As the brisket and turkey judging begins, Siegel will provide food for thought when he sings the blues at noon at the Crain-Maling Stage. Levy follows on the same stage at 2 p.m., then the pair jam together at 5:30 p.m.

South Shore native Siegel and Brooklyn-born Levy are major “gets” in a festival history of entertainers who have included David Broza, Theodore Bikel, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), Steven Page (of Bare Naked Ladies), Debbie Friedman, Shuli Nathan, Maya Johanna, Lisa Loeb and the Maccabeats.

“I’m Jewish, I’m Christian, I’m Muslim, I’m Buddhist, I’m Hindu,” said Siegel, 74, still singing into his senior years, like all the other great blues greats. “The reason I don’t say (at shows what his ethnicity is) is because I don’t want religion to get in way of my humanity.

“My love for humanity is Jewish.  My job as a Jew is to untwist (the public perception of love for humanity). I wake up every morning, look out at the world and see we are intimately connected with every single human being in all of nature. That’s how I walk around on this Earth.”

While Lorge and his bookers have tried to book Jewish-identified acts for entertainment, they also sometimes want to “take someone who is in the broader secular community with their music, but are committed to their Judaism. Part of what the festival is saying is Jewish culture is for everyone. One of the sentences in our program book is ‘Everyone is under the same tent.’

“I’m a big fan of (Siegel and Levy). Howard performed years ago at the festival, but always seemed to be touring in Europe (ever since). We’ve talked about Corky before, but other focuses came up.  

“What’s the total musicality of what we’re putting out there? How accessible is it? How joyful is it? How broadly does it speak to the various parts of the Jewish community? Corky spans so many generations musically, but for him to be up there to do his music his way and to talk about what Judaism means to him is an important lesson to the kids who will come out.”

Lorge says that after Siegel and Levy have performed their individual acts, “they’ll really tear the place up together” in symbolically being the closing act for the festival.

Siegel began performing in 1964 while studying music at Roosevelt University, where he met guitarist Jim Schwall.  Becoming a duo, they landed a regular gig, working 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. Thursday nights at Pepper’s Lounge, where established blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon often sat in. Soon the Siegal-Schwall Band became a national quartet and began touring nationally. Between 1966 and 1974, they released 10 albums.

Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist Levy, 66, was a founding member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, with whom he won a 1997 Grammy for “The Sinister Minister” in the best Pop Instrumental Performance category. He also won a Grammy in 2012 for “Life In Eleven” in Best Instrumental Composition category. A former member of the Northwestern University jazz band, Levy has worked with Paul Simon, Donald Fagen, and Latin jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera.

Through all the changes in life and art, Siegel just keeps on singing the blues.

“I’m retiring constantly, from different kinds of subtle desires and needs and different motives and trying to just retire from everything… than just doing it,” he said of his craft, which to him always had a rhyme and reason.

“Music helped teach me the depth of religious teachings. It helped me make the connection with the importance of ritual. At a Seder, why is this night different from other nights? I talked about when you participate in a ritual, you’re bringing an ancient truth and history to life.

“In a Seder, you talk about bitter herbs, you’re taking this bitterness inside you and experiencing the inhumanity to man. Lean back and dip food into the juice, you’ve just created the contradicting experiences of slavery and oppression with wealth and freedom.  The question is what do we do with that? If it’s not about brotherhood, it’s not true religion.”

Siegel long ago stashed away writer’s bloc in composing his music.

“When I sit down to create something, I understand I only have one job — create an environment, physical and psychological, to allow ideas to come out freely. My job is to wait for the ideas to come. When they come, I simply hold them up, and if they inspire me I write them down. If not, I put them aside.

“I want it to feel good and be something I can connect to. I try not to project how it’s going to be received. Otherwise I never would have done it.

“The secret is, and I can speak for Howard, I don’t play music for money,” Siegel said. “I play for the sheer joy of doing it. I don’t need any money for playing music. If I do, I don’t feel like I’m playing any music. I’m playing a day out on my calendar.”

Children’s choir.

Siegel won’t be the only blues specialist  performing. While Levy is performing at 2 p.m., Israel-born blues guitarist Guy King will work the IAC Stage, named for the sponsoring Israeli-American Council.

Lorge also has built on an idea introduced at the 2016 festival. Then, actors portrayed great Israeli figures, such as David Ben-Gurion, and circulated among the crowd in character. This year, the actors will have their own designated stages.

“They’ll interact more and behind each one will be a tent with activities sponsored by Jewish day schools. It will all tie together and connect with the geography of Israel,” he said.

The tented Pavilion Stage will feature “Improv With a Jewish Twist,” with audience participation. “You’re doing comedy improv, it works better enclosed,” Lorge said.

Also returning is a petting zoo with a more educational aspect about animals in Jewish history. Meanwhile, more than 50 participants from all over the world will display their wares at an art fair.

As he described this year’s festival, Lorge had a ready reminder of his family’s history of community involvement and social justice in his Skokie Village Hall office, where he works his day job as Skokie’s legal counsel.  A framed plaque advertised Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at a June 1964 Soldier Field civil-rights rally at which Lorge’s famed activist father, Rabbi Ernst Lorge, also spoke.

Father-and-son Lorge’s messages were not meant for a targeted audience, though. They want to reach the biggest tent possible.

“Part of the mission of the festival is to reach out to the broader Jewish community so they can see the Jewish community doesn’t just come together or reach out in times of crisis,” Michael Lorge concluded.

“It isn’t just when Israel is in peril. Or when there’s an anti-Semitic act in the country. We want to share who we are and what our values are with the general community so that when we have a need, we have friends to turn to.  It’s welcoming who we are in contact with every day, but who don’t necessarily know our music, or see our art.

“Or smell our barbecue.”

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