United by Kibbe

Elise Wiener draws together next-generation Syrian Jews with the help of Aunt Ray’s magical recipe, straight fromthe Fry-o-Lator. (Bonus: recipe included.)

I tasted my first kibbe at my Aunt Ray’s house. She’s not alive anymore. Aunt Ray was my mother’s sister, the fourth of eight children — seven sisters and one brother. I loved going to holidays at her house. After you found the pile of coats in one of the bedrooms and threw yours on top and came downstairs, every one of your 36 relatives got up from his or her chair (or the floor) to give you a kiss and wish you a Happy Holiday. Of the sisters, only Aunt Ray made kibbe, and she only did so for Rosh HaShana and the seders. So it had to have been at one of those holidays that I ate my first kibbe.

Kibbe united us — torpedo-shaped, deep-fried, scalding-hot-right-out-of-the-Fry-o-Lator. Hard on the outside, slightly spicy. The entire family fought over them at the threshold of the kitchen as my Aunt Ray tried to jockey them past us into the dining room. We kept count — who had nabbed two, who seven. Sometimes I’d stand and watch Aunt Ray fry them, wedging myself between her and the Spanish lady who silently washed dishes and wiped out the sink with a sponge. I was always in the way as my Aunt Ray moved back and forth in her kitchen, her palace of food, where she somberly hibernated preparing our feasts. Shaking her head, she’d mutter to herself in her smoker’s voice, “Everything is terrible.”

Aunt Ray was holy; the weary cook draped in a maroon velour housecoat. Appetizers — including kibbe — aside, which she kept coming from the moment we arrived at the house until the minute Uncle Mo and Norman entered the house after shul and said kiddush, she’d whisper to us children, “Quick, have some soup,” and dole out portions while we pushed away clutter on the kitchen table. Rice. Carrots. Broth. Chicken. Matzo balls. Slurping, our chins soaked, aunts wandering in and out, holding us captive to unanswerable questions. “So, Elise, how are things?” “You look beautiful, what’s new?” I never had a clue how to answer them.

It was the kibbe that made us family. The kibbe. Getting dressed for the holiday, driving on the Long Island Expressway, our car exiting for Brooklyn on the winding metalgrid ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, parking on the quiet street of brownstones where religious families walked in grouped silence, finally entering into the crowded fragrant house. We knew it would be there, the smell wafting to the sidewalk: kibbe.

My favorite cousin was Jayne, a magical sixteen while I seemed to remain forever seven or eight or nine, plodding through my childhood, never reaching that sophistication Jayne exuded. She would walk into a room smelling dramatic, swinging her head of gorgeous brown hair as she leaned on one hip. Red lips. The coolest outfit. She was an artist. She loved Bruce Springsteen. She was from Brooklyn.

Jayne and her older sister Vicki would let me into their shared room to show me their teenage stuff. Huge stuffed animals, lots of them, and small vanities crowded with bottles. I was shy, and sat there quietly, longing to have something to say, sitting on their double bed, watching them.

When I was four, my cousin Norman, their brother, cupped his hands under my armpits and swung me up and down between his legs in the teeny galley kitchen, shouting, “Look at you, you’re gorgeous!” It was frightening, but we were all together: cousins, aunts and uncles, the rhythm of their voices all talking at once, endlessly smoking cigarettes, cracking pistachio nuts, eating kibbe and more kibbe. Telling stories and interrupting, “No, Millie, I’ll tell you how it was!” “Stella!” “Sareena!” — they called to each other in New York accents. We were family. These people were my birthright.

Norman would be in his late forties now, but he’s no longer living. He died of a heart attack, though it could have been related to a drug overdose. He lived hard — drugs, failed businesses, sports car crashes, shattered bones. The family couldn’t hold him together. In later years I avoided him, having heard all the gossip, his drug-rehab stays, his explosions of rage at my cousins. At my cousin Jordi’s bar mitzvah he had taken me for a ride, a very fast one. We did cocaine, or did we get high? He kissed me on the lips in front of cousins and aunts and uncles, and I stood there pretending nothing happened. At the shiva house we all said nothing, just went through the motions and absorbed the sadness that Norman’s life had been.

Before Norman died, Uncle Mo did, and then Aunt Ray.

As children, along with kibbe, we were told about our illustrious ancestry in Aleppo, Syria. Aleppo. In Hebrew, Aram Tsoba. In Arabic, Halebi — the place where Abraham the shepherd came down from the mountain and gave milk (“halav”) to everyone who was impoverished. “You come from a line of great rabbis,” my aunts would intone. “Great rabbis.” Over and over. Weighty for simply having been spoken. “Kabbalists.” If I was lucky, I’d wriggle into a spot at the big dining room table, under the chandelier, as my aunts and uncle got going, all elbows, who could tell it better? Helen or Sareena, or Lilian? Julie or Millie? The coarse laughter, the word “Mama” and again “Mama.” “Mama” — spoken with gravelly reverence. “Great rabbis” and “Mama.” Mama and a great line of rabbis. Kabbalists.

At the Passover sedarim, my cousin Jayne was the one who got to hold the metal cooking pot behind her back while Uncle Mo dribbled in wine from his cup — one dribble for each of the ten plagues in Egypt. I squeezed my mind to imagine every plague. Jayne took the cursed wine to the toilet, flushing it away, never looking at it. It was a Syrian custom to make a wish — what did Jayne wish for?

I always wished that one year I would flush the cursed wine down the toilet.

And there was the afikoman. Wrapped in a napkin. Symbol of bondage. It passed from oldest male to youngest — each putting the bundle over his left shoulder and then over his head, in a circle, as Uncle Mo, his white shirt unbuttoned, his hairy chest, his sleeves rolled, king of the house, his Syrian accent twisting from his throat, raspy, nasal, guttural, fist banging on the table, ceremoniously bellowed: “Where are you coming from?” “Mitzrayim” — Egypt. “And where are you going to?” “Yerushalayim” — Jerusalem. And the afikoman would make its rounds.

We are royalty, I thought. At ballet class, I would ask the other girls, “Are you Jewish or Christian?” Because then I would tell them, “I am like a queen.” Thirteen generations ago, my forebear left Spain during the Inquisition and went to Sfat where he studied with the great Rav Yosef Karo. And when Rav Karo was asked to be the leader of the Jewish community of Aleppo — that most illustrious of all Jewish communities — he declined, and said, “I am sending you a man just like myself.” And he sent my forebear, long ago in the 16th century.

At the end of our meals, only Norman and Uncle Mo picked up their bentchers [prayer books], the two voices praying together, Norman a millisecond behind, their song lost under the noise of our partying, the television going really loud, my other uncles and cousins sitting satiated on chairs and on the couch. Aunt Ray still slaving in the kitchen, Norman sitting with his father in a lonely gesture of goodness. I sometimes opened a prayer book and sat down with them. They never noticed me, but all those rabbis I came from, I believed fervently that they were watching.

And then Uncle Mo had a stroke and no longer banged on the table. His leg dragged, his vitality was lost. Norman and my other male cousins took me and my brother upstairs and turned us onto drugs. The door shut, we were cramped, passing a pipe from one to the other, not really talking. The adults hadn’t a clue. Then Jayne would take me to her room, open the folding doors to her overstuffed closet and try to find something to give me. I would sit shyly on the bed.

“Do you want this, Elise? This is gorgeous.” She gave me a white ostrich wrap. She gave me black, satin-suspender hot pants that ballooned before they attached to the thigh. Decades later, they still hung in my closet.

I am orthodox, the only one who remains religious in my extended family. Our three kids jolting about the table, about to spill food on upholstery — to my ears, the house rattles without forty family members filling it. Should my husband and I have had more children? How did my grandmother do it?

The Dahab-Laniado clan of my mother’s and her parents’ generations has faded to a memory. My mother’s mother and father. Seven sisters and one brother, disconnected by distances and death. Those moments from my childhood lost, like a great movie which ends and leaves you gaping into the chasm of what once was. My children will never see this film, and I can’t even move my mouth to tell this story. The elegant dining room table filled with platters of stuffed eggplant, roast chicken, potatoes, peas, rice — all spread across a white white tablecloth. Aunt Ray escorting food to its grand entrance. Uncle Mo at the head of the table like a god. Handsome cousins bantering. Celebrities I once knew. We have all moved away, little pieces of family superseding what once seemed primary and forever.

Now I am the sole descendent who makes kibbe.

Torpedo-shaped, deep-fried, scalding-hot-right-out-of-the-Fry-o-Lator. Hard on the outside, slightly spicy. When we all get together — so rarely — at my house, I make them, the smell wafting out, as always, to the sidewalk. Kibbe.

With one bite, we are comrades once again.

Elise Weiner is a potter, fabric artist and graphic designer and recipient of two Louie Awards. She lives in New Haven with herhusband and three children.

Kibbe Nebelsia (Torpedoes)

Holding a tray of steaming hot kibbe is like winning a popularity contest. When my family members used to cross the border into Aunt Ray’s kitchen, wondering if the empty tray would be refilled, she’d wave them away with her arms: “They’re coming! T hey’re coming!”

3 c. bulgur wheat
1 c. flour
1 c. matzo meal
2 T. salt
2 T. oil
2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
2 tsp. cumin
1 1/2 c. water (or more)

3 lbs. chopped meat
2 lg. onions, chopped
2 T. oil
1 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 c. pine nuts, toasted
1/2 c. pomegranate seeds (optional)

Filling   (For best results, prepare filling one day ahead and refrigerate.) Sauté chopped onion in oil until translucent. Add meat and gently saute mixture over medium/low heat, continually breaking meat apart until all fat has evaporated and meat is brown. Cool meat. Mix in seasoning, toasted pine nuts and optional pomegranate seeds. Set aside.

Dough   Grind bulgur to flour consistency in coffee grinder or food mill. Set aside. Mix together flour, matzo meal and spices. Wet bulgur wheat by covering with water. Do not soak. Scoop and squeeze bulgur with hands and add to flour mixture. Mixture will be crumbly. Add oil. G radually knead in water until dough becomes soft. Let set for 1 hour. (If dough later becomes dry, sprinkle with water and reknead.)

Assemble Kibbe   Arrange table with dough, filling, 2 plates, 1 dish towel, 1 bowl of water to wet hands and a glass of extra water to moisten dough when necessary. Lay dish towel in front of you to catch water. Moisten hands. Working over plate, roll dough into small ball. Keeping hands wet, press hole into ball with forefinger and shape kibbe with twisting motion into cone. Sides of cone should not be too thick. Fill with meat, adding a drop of water to the top. Do not overfill. To close kibbe, moisten fingers and pinch top together. Patch any cracks with small pieces of dough and water. After completing each group of 10, freeze in an aluminum tin in freezer overnight.

Place waxed paper in between layers. Place in plastic bags in the morning. Keep frozen until frying. Fry kibbe in an electric Fry-o-Later with basket until dark brown. Serve immediately!

Adapted from Deal Delights (by the Sisterhood of The Deal Synagogue, Deal, NJ, 1985)