There was none of the master planning you might expect the first time Zak Stern decided to keep his kosher bakery open late and invite the public inside for a gospel choir and crisp, hot falafels tucked into fluffy pitas with tahini and tomato-cucumber salad. The year was 2014, and the idea was to bring together groups of people who might never otherwise cross paths.
"I like these moments of tribes colliding together and giving a chance for us to remove the klipah — to see the beauty in each other beyond our obvious superficial difference," Stern says, referring to the hidden forces in mystical Judaism that obscure goodness from the world.
It was a special moment frozen in the time, when the whitewashed cinderblock walls of the bakery reverberated with deeply emotional, spiritual wailing and rhythms. It was enough to produce slow streams of tears on the faces of those lucky enough to be there, who tried to hide it by claiming they were wiping their faces to remove a smear of lemon-infused sesame paste.
Though the event was a one-time gig, the memory of it never left Stern's mind, and about a year ago, after having participated in the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in a number of ways, he approached founder and director Lee Brian Schrager and asked if he could do his own thing.
"He basically gave us a blank canvas, which was incredible, and we immediately wanted to bring back gospel and falafel," Stern says of the appropriately named SOBEWFF event Gospel & Falafel.
This time, however, he has a bit more help than the bare-bones staff of the old bakery down the street from his bustling operation: He'll be joined by Valerie Chang of Itamae and B-Side Sushi, Bradley Kilgore of Alter et al., cookbook author Adeena Sussman, and the Broken Shaker's Elad Zvi.
Stern is turning falafel responsibilities over to Chang, who'll deliver a Peruvian-inflected version to be tucked into Zak's pitas. Kilgore will dish out sunchoke khachapuri. The cheese-and-egg-filled bread canoe from the Caucuses has garnered a dedicated following in other cities, and the Kansas City native will complement it with various Israeli vegetable dishes called salatim. Sussman will make a mushroom shawarma alongside more salatim, likely inspired by and culled from her recently released cookbook, Sababa. Zvi, using buckets of bourbon, will ensure everything and everyone is well lubricated with a "kosher" colada — which will riff on a piña colada with tahini and coconut milk — and a mint tea highball.
The highlight, however will surely be the work of Minister Desmond Jackson and the Sovereign Ministries, who were the first choir Stern called upon for the inaugural event. The full choir numbers about 15, and Jackson, who is 49 and based in Hallandale Beach, says more than a dozen will appear with a three-piece band.
"We just want to bring some light to all of the dark days that we’ve had in the past," Jackson says, "and with everything going on in the world, we want everyone to know there is hope."
An obvious question lingers: How exactly does a Christian choir perform in a kosher bakery beloved by the worldwide observant Jewish community? It was one on the choir's mind as well.
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"The first thing I told Zak is that we believe in Jesus Christ, and we preach and sing about the birth, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the Gospel, and I wanted to know if there were some words I had to stay away from in order not to offend anyone," Jackson explains. "I don't want to ever be in a situation or be placed in a situation or place anyone in a situation where what they believe is challenged."
Stern told them to do what they do best.
"There’s something that links all of us together essentially, and if we're given the chance, I think we can put down the things that get in the way of us getting in the way of seeing the goodness in each other," Stern says. "I think it's important in this day and age when we’re so fractured and living in our echo chambers to have a chance to mash it up a bit in a pretty wholesome, unprovocative way."
Zak the Baker’s Gospel & Falafel. 10 p.m. to midnight Thursday, February 20, at Zak the Baker, 295 NW 26th St., Miami; sobewff.org/gospel. Tickets cost $125.