More than 120 exhibitors and some of the biggest names in politics, showbiz and Jewish life helped make the second Jewish Living Expo at Wembley Stadium an historic day for the entire community. Michelle Morris reports.[divider]
The heated excitement was tangible against the cold London morning air, as hundreds of exhibitors and entertainers flocked to the iconic Wembley Stadium on Sunday morning. Walking into the Bobby Moore Suite minutes before the doors opened to the public was exhilarating.
Some 150 stalls filled the 3,500 square-metre room, transforming it into a blue and white version of Camden market. Some were selling goods and offering free activities while stacking up leaflets, filling bowls of sweets and sticking decorative signs up on their booths. Befitting a Jewish Living Expo, the events at the main stage started half an hour behind schedule.
Nick Ferrari greeted the crowd, joking: “We’re running a bit late, but please stay seated. We’ve all flown El Al so we know what that means!”
Visitors took their seats and gathered around the balcony on the second level to watch the Wolfson Hillel Primary School choir’s opening musical number. Their song, Hineh ma tov u’ma-nayim shevet achim gam yachad, meaning, “Behold how good and how pleasing it is, when people sit together in unity” encapsulated the atmosphere. The crowd clapped along, smiling at their sweet matching actions in their uniforms with prefect badges proudly pinned.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis then made his opening remarks, saying how wonderful it was to see Jewish life pulsating in such a vibrant way. “This is the sound of Jewish life!” he said backstage, with the Shabbaton choir harmonies blending in the background. “Here, you’ll find everything that we’re proud of in the Jewish community.”
Afterwards, families started making their way through the maze of the different stalls. The Israel Zone at the entrance of the hall was fenced with a wall of blue and white balloons and had every type of Israeli service and consultant on show. Arranged by Bait Israeli, The Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organisation, there was also a L’chaim corner and were joined by Ambassador Daniel Taub.
“Besides for the people for whom aliyah is always on their mind, we want to enlarge this circle and inspire other people,” said Oded Feuer, head of the aliyah promotion unit at the WZO. “Every year we have an Israel expo somewhere in London, but this year we wanted to come through the community and join the Jewish Living Expo!”
Shir Music from the Simcha Zone, which set out to serenade everyone Klezmer-style with a clarinet and guitar, ignited a spontaneous jam session when it reached the Israel Zone. Exhibitors and visitors all danced in a circle together and sang along to the classic Israeli songs while waving flags. “I came down today from Manchester for the Israel Zone because I want to make aliyah,” said participant Marc Cowan, 22. “I’ve made some great contacts and the atmosphere is amazing!”
At midday, all the teenage girls in the room seemed to gravitate towards the stage area while simultaneously whipping out their smartphones to film Moni Tivoni, star of The Voice, in his signature black thick-rimmed glasses. He performed Bob Marley’s hit One Love, along with some other reggae-vibed fan favourites as seen on the show. In between his swaggering moves he added a few “oyoyoys!” in between his “yeyeye!” vocal runs.
“All the stalls are great,” said 11-year-old Hasmonean pupil Daniel Cohen, who wore a white balloon shaped as a hat. “But I think the performances are the best – it’s good stuff,” he said before turning to watch Ferrari announce the next act.
Each stall had its own shtick to draw people in. The In London Events stand glittered with a starlit backdrop to the right of the main stage. The Pillar Hotel brought in some of its furniture to recreate its boutique hotel experience and it was a welcome respite to sit and sip some Pillar labelled water.
The PhotoMagnet company went around taking pictures of guests and posted them for collection on a board at its stand. The Grapevine, which has stores in Stamford Hill and Hendon, handed out samples of the best wines and made cocktails from the moment the doors opened at 10.30am. When asked how people could drink so early, Chasidic owner David Margulies said in Yiddish-style simplicity: “When it’s free, they drink!”
For children, there was the children’s soft play area in the centre of the hall, as well as the Art Academy’s arts and craft session on the mezzanine level. Tribe, the United Synagogue’s youth movement, was buzzing as participants lined up for free balloon hats, caricatures and face painting.
Medivet had a life-size operation game, where youngsters dressed up in scrubs and operated on a giant stuffed bear. “The magic stall was our favourite,” the three young boys from Dancing With Louise agreed between performances. There was a clown and plate-spinner at the Camp Simcha booth and JNF had a woman on stilts publicising giveaway competitions. In addition to these familiar organisations, some new ones were sporting innovative concepts. Jewish Interactive develops educational apps that can be used at home or in schools and there was also Lumacoustics showcased their virtual spray-painting wall.
“This event is really top class,” said Kelvin MacKenzie, the former Sun editor. “I like being involved in these kind of Jewish events because the atmosphere of optimism, creativity and not to mention the food, is always at the highest level.”
Of course, there was an abundance of food. “We’ve got 1,000 burgers, 500 hot dogs and 400 shwarmas,” said Adam Forman, Jason Millan’s managing director. It sold refreshments at the bars as well as having a hot food restaurant on the next floor up. Me Too! Foods promoted its fresh packaged products offering falafel balls, dips and hot soup.
Instead of gefilte fish, guests munched on sushi from Itzik Caterers. Our people have come far indeed!
In the realm of sophisticated food, Denise Phillips’ cooking demonstration on level two was a “sensation,” said the chef. “The fact that all the food has completely gone speaks for itself.” Denise Lubert from Stanmore attested that “everything we’ve had has been fresh, healthy and tasty. I tried to eat one of her food displays as it looked so good!”
In the Wembley Suite, senior citizens and young professionals came to hear debates and talks by MacKenzie, Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub and fertility expert Lord Robert Winston.
During a VIP reception held in one of the boxes, Simon Johnson, the newly-appointed chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, pointed across the pitch and said: “My office used to be just over there.” The former FA director of corporate affairs went on to compare this event to others he used to see while wondering around. “This is a really vibrant one, you can really tell there’s a joy and real life behind it.”
Back on the main stage, 3pm drew in the biggest crowd of the day for the Dancing With Louise performance. The valleys between stalls were filled as far as eye could see of people bobbing along, filming and roaring for the little boys breakdancing to Run DMC. The girls tap-dancing and popping were joined by Matilda star Kerry Ingram for a final rendition of Revolting Children from her acclaimed show.
The party continued with the JLGB band anthems blasting through the ballroom, and depleting energies were bumped up with David Serero’s opera version of Hava Nagila, which had him dancing with the audience.
As darkness fell on the stadium, the football pitch lights grew brighter and children were schlepping their feet around at the end of a long and busy day. “We only planned to be here for the morning, but ended up staying all day,” said Noami Cohen from Liverpool. “The kids loved all the activities. They didn’t want to leave the Tribe Fun Zone. I came a long way for this and it was definitely worth the trip.”
The finale on the main stage saw a relaxing end to the day, as Wicked star Natalie Green smoothly sang out some of the show’s hits.
Jewish News editor Richard Ferrer officially wrapped up the day with his closing comments on the main stage, reflecting on the camaraderie and fun and thanking the newspaper’s readers. The day was perhaps summed up best by charity PR extraordinaire Sue Rifkin who simply said: “The Jewish News brings people together!”
Photo credits: Paul Persky and Marc Morris