The driver shuts the taxi door behind me and we head towards the Brooklyn Bridge. It is the morning of the most important day of the week, and I’ve remembered to wear a skirt. I might disregard the weekly holy day on my own non-kosher turf, but I want to make sure to respect my Modern Orthodox relatives on theirs. I am making the trip to watch my aunt Sara* prepare Shabbat dinner. As a cooking teacher and food writer, I want to learn exactly how she works her wonders in the kitchen.
As we head down Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway, I mull over how far the community has come from its former home in Syria. The first wave of Syrian Jews emigrated around the turn of the century, after the opening of the Suez Canal disrupted caravan trade and the declining Ottoman Empire ended the Jews’ exemption from military service.
My grandmother Celia* emigrated with her family from Aleppo in 1921. She studied the Bible until she was in her eighties and proudly displayed a framed photograph of her father and grandfather—both rabbis—on her bedroom wall. (Whenever my cousins and I would jump up and down on her bed, their stern beard-edged visages would peer over our shoulders.)
Years later, at my grandmother’s funeral, the rabbi spoke of how Celia had passed her devotion to G-d on to her children and grandchildren. It was as if he didn’t even know me. As a less religious relative raised outside the community, I didn’t completely belong. I only rarely participated in my relatives’ Shabbat dinner get-togethers, spending most of my Friday nights out with friends in Manhattan.
Even though our times together are warm, I sometimes wonder if my aunts, uncles, and cousins would still accept me if I talked honestly about details in my own life. What would they think of my preponderance of non-Jewish friends? My decision not to attend synagogue? The fact that I prepared pork dishes at cooking school? Since this neighborhood is its own insular world, where does that leave a close relative who happens not to locate herself within the community?
It’s not as if I am completely detached from their I way of life. If there was one thing in Celia’s eulogy that did resonate with me, it was the countless references to her culinary skills. Once the subject turned to her cooking, I felt more comfortable. Not only did I share with my grandmother a love of the kitchen, I also remembered her cooking as much as any of my Brooklyn cousins, aunts or uncles did. I’d always been in awe of Celia’s magic hands and discerning palate, as well as the results they yielded. For years, my cousins and I would raid her refrigerator—chock-full of Syrian sweets—at every family event. She always had a plentiful supply of difficult-to-make graybeh—melt-in-your-mouth butter cookies, each embedded with a single gem like pistachio—and kanafe, those crispy, hair-like pastries filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and drenched in rosewater syrup.
After a night of pastry consumption, Grandma would test our endurance with her traditional breakfast delicacies. At the marble-topped table in her antique kitchen, we would feast on her homemade ka’ak. As if the addictive sesame-sprinkled anise crackers weren’t enough. Grandma would also offer sambousak, pillows of semolina dough filled with Muenster cheese. I was so proud of her ka’ak that I would bring them to school in Maryland for my own version of’ show and tell,’ removing them from my bag slowly and mysteriously, as if I were performing a wizard’s trick. I was thrilled to share the crumbly crackers with my friends, who didn’t quite know what to make of their strong licorice flavor.
The homes of the Syrian Jewish community would also have seemed “foreign” to my friends. On postage stamp-sized lots, these houses are variations on a theme of Spanish tile roofs and intricate ironwork. In contrast to the elaborate houses, though, most lives in the community are plainly laid out. Men typically work in business and pray at one of the community’s many synagogues. By their early twenties, most women are married—usually to other Syrians. When my father married my non-Sephardic mother and left Brooklyn for Washington, D.C., he distanced himself from the community—a point that has caused him much distress over the years. My father misses the warmth and close ties of his childhood and frequently dreams of returning to New York to be among his family. With her Russian Jewish ancestry, my mother would not fit in nearly as well. As their offspring, I am something of a mixed breed—half in and half out.
I lead a very different life than my 100-percent-Syrian relatives. In line with women in the community, I did marry at 22; however, I attended Columbia University and I’ve focused on my education and career, rather than immediately raising a family in a religious tradition. As a result, even though my cousin Rachel* and I share a love of learning, religion sometimes comes between us. Recently, she had to with draw a Friday night dinner invitation, as it would have required my husband and me to drive on Shabbat. “You must think I’m a religious fanatic,” she exclaimed, sounding deeply embarrassed. “Do you think I’m a terrible person?” I tried to reassure her that I understood her predicament, but Rachel was still apologetic, given her strong instincts as a gracious hostess.
If there’s one belief that Rachel never feels the need to explain, it’s the cardinal rule of the community: you must many Jewish. When I was a junior in college, she warned me, in between bites of Syrian pastry, that I must date only Jewish boys. “If you don’t,” she said, leaning close, “you’re playing with fire.” Falling in love with my Jewish husband was in some ways a miracle, a boon for family unity. I’d passed the most important test by remaining within my tribe.
Interrupting my reverie, the driver pulls up to my aunt Sara’s house. It is here, in this brick home on one of the community’s tree-lined streets, that magic regularly occurs: my aunt, through her cooking, helps to bridge the gap between my relatives and me. Though I didn’t grow up with my cousins and I barely see them, we all share a connection with the dishes of our heritage: the allspice-spiked meatballs coupled with brown onions and sweet, dark cherries and, after dairy meals, the rose- and orange-scented suttlage (cornstarch milk pudding).
My relatives and I often laugh over the name that I coined for peas that have been cooked for hours with meat and spices: “dirty.” My love of this dish, in which the peas become brown and mushy and full of sweet, mysterious flavors, established early on that I was a devoted fan of their cuisine. Now that I cook, I can share with my female relatives an intimate knowledge of the kitchen. In some ways, I reflect, I am another link in the family chain of good cooks, carrying on my grandmother’s passion, though adapted a bit to the modern and non-kosher palate.
Yet, despite my desire to learn how to cook Syrian food a la Celia and Sara, I’ve always been concerned that it might be too labor-intensive. Just to create some of the ingredients—tamarind paste, for example—seemed to me to take a whole day of stirring, watching, straining. Joseph Sutton, in Magic Carpet: Aleppo-in-Flatbush, describes how the Jewish women of Syria were quasi-invisible, home almost all of the time cooking. Much as I love dirty peas, I am definitely not interested in becoming an invisible woman.
Trying to keep an open mind, I follow my aunt into the familiar terrain of her kitchen. She has already laid out the makings of our first dish: eggplant with meat and rice. And so the lesson begins, as my aunt—a woman who cooks by instinct and rarely follows a recipe—teaches me to use lots of allspice, cinnamon and tamarind, much more spice than I had expected. I learn to freeze meatballs and broiled eggplant slices, an indispensable time saving trick. She also shows me that many of the dishes don’t have to take the hours I had feared. The heat does its work, while the women relax. Sara’s motto is “Cook it until it’s dead, until it looks brown and limp.”
Once my aunt and I have finished cooking, she brings out a box of index cards. When I open it, I realize that it contains a little bit of our family’s history. Each card represents a meal that Sara has prepared, with a list of guest names and dishes that have been served. While I’m fingering the cards, I come across one that reads “Dinner for Dina, 11/96.”
I remember how my aunt allowed me to choose the menu for one Friday night dinner. After I called her with my selections, Sara prepared exactly what I requested. The dirty peas were browner and sweeter than ever, permeated to the core with the aroma of allspice. The meatballs with cherries, full of browned onions and the tart note of tamarind, struck the perfect balance between savory and sweet. As I relish the memory of that meal, I realize that I am written into my family’s history. I am inside this box of cards. I do belong.
Carefully closing the box, I wait with my aunt for the evening’s guests, my family.
Dina Cheney a freelance writer and recipe developer, teaches cooking and offers guided tastings and flavor based creativity and team-building seminars through her company. Cooking by Heart (www.cookingbyheart.com).