Cooking Defines Sephardic Jews at Sukkot

Like its trees, Brooklyn’s sukkahs sprout in unlikely places.

All over the borough, observant Jewish families spent the first week of October building sukkahs, outdoor rooms with open roofs, in preparation for the holiday of Sukkot, which began last Friday and ends this Friday. Perched on asphalt roofs and in concrete gardens, they will eat under the stars for a week to commemorate the Jews’ biblical wanderings in the desert.
For one food-loving community within Brooklyn’s sizable Jewish population, Sukkot has additional significance.

“We always cook a lot, but for Sukkot, we do even more,” said Aida Hasson, who grew up in Beirut and is part of Brooklyn’s tight-knit community of Middle Eastern Jews.

This network of a few hundred families shares roots in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, and also an extraordinary culinary tradition. They use the term Syrian Jews, to distinguish themselves within the larger world of the Sephardim, the Jews of the Mediterranean.
“We call ourselves Syrian, Sephardic, Middle Eastern, whatever,” said Giselle Habert, who was born in Cairo. “The important thing is that we all know each other, and we all cook the same things.”

This community’s favorites are labor-intensive dishes that are still passed down from mother to daughter: sambusak, crisp little half-moons stuffed with allspice-scented meat or tangy white cheese; mujadara, lentils and rice cooked together and thickly piled with gold-brown strands of onion; mahshi, vegetables like tiny eggplant and finger-size zucchini stuffed with spiced meat and rice; and kahk, sesame-sprinkled rounds of crumbly pastry.

“Ours is the real, original cooking of the Jews,” said Vicki Maijor, whose grandmother was born in Aleppo, Syria. In the Bible, she pointed out, when Esau sells his birthright, “it is for lentil soup, isn’t it?”

Now spread over the world, “the community,” as its members call it, is defined mostly through family and religion, but also by its distinctive food, so different from the brisket and bagels of the Ashkenazic tradition most Americans are familiar with.

Ms. Hasson is famous in the community for her typically Lebanese fruit preserves, like tiny apples cooked in sugar syrup, jellied quince paste and finely shredded and candied spaghetti squash, all traditional sweets for the first month of the Jewish year, which began at sundown on Sept. 22. “In Beirut, we all lived together, and the women cooked together all day long,” she said. “Everyone would sit down and help with the stuffing and the folding, someone would make a bowl of tabbouleh, and that way no one was alone doing all the work.”

Middle Eastern cities like Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Alexandria all had flourishing Jewish neighborhoods for many centuries. But diasporas became common for many reasons, including the slow death of the camel-caravan economy in the 20th century, the Arab-Israeli wars and Egypt’s expulsion of nearly all of its Jews between 1956 and 1967.

And so the community has slowly reconstituted itself in Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Paris and Brooklyn, revitalizing the Sephardic neighborhood around the intersection of Kings Highway and Ocean Parkway. Population estimates for the community in Brooklyn range from 30,000 to 50,000; Brooklyn’s Jewish population overall is now about 500,000, according to a 2002 study by the UJA-Federation of New York.

It is not surprising, given the repeated displacements of the centuries, that the community does not welcome attention from outsiders. But its cooking, which I first tasted at the bakeries and restaurants on Kings Highway, is so intriguing that over several months, I slowly persuaded some home cooks to open their kitchens.

Although they take their skills for granted – “I don’t do anything special” is the refrain – their well-developed abilities to balance sweet and sour flavors, to weave together spices, simply to cook without recipes and put a home-cooked meal on the table virtually every night, are increasingly rare.

Sukkot is also the Jewish harvest festival, and in the community it has become a traditional time to feed 40, 60, even 100 guests – and to set out almost that many different dishes. On the first night, my dinner began with seven different mezze, or appetizers, then continued with a green Egyptian soup called melokhia, spiked with vinegary scallions to cut its richness. It then moved on to two chickens mounded with rice and pine nut stuffing; brisket in a sweet and sour sauce; a roll of roasted kibbe (ground beef and rice) in cherry sauce; braised celery root and fennel in turmeric; and string beans with caramelized onions. For dessert, there was a plum tart, a pastry roll filled with homemade jam, and walnut-stuffed dates.

After the first two festive days, typical Sukkot meals are casseroles and stews – like sofrito batatas, a spiced veal stew with fried potatoes mixed in – that can be easily transported to the sukkah, and are warming on cold fall nights.

Like Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish women, the women of this community keep kosher kitchens, define themselves first as wives and mothers, and rarely work outside the home. But in contrast to those purposefully modest women, these women are fashionable and even glamorous, blending in on the Brooklyn streets in tank tops and French-tip manicures.

“In our community, it doesn’t matter so much what we wear,” said Fernanda Chemtob, who was born in Cairo and now lives in Brooklyn. “We know who we are.” They certainly do. Even women who have lived their whole lives in Brooklyn can taste if a cook’s roots are in Egypt or Syria, depending on whether garlic and lemon, or allspice and tomato, are more dominant in her cooking.

“We don’t like anything bland,” said Raquel Habert, one of Giselle’s daughters-in-law. “We are always adding flavor, flavor, flavor.” Florence Habert, another daughter-in-law and a new bride, shrugged off compliments on the pleating technique she uses to seal her sambusak. “You watch your mother, you watch your grandmother, you love the way it tastes, so you have to learn to do it,” she said. Developing the patience and dexterity to turn out these tiny pastries earns real respect in this community: a love for sambusak and lahmejun is like a badge of Syrian identity, and cooks say they are always the first to go at any gathering.

“If you put out a thousand sambusak, they will eat a thousand sambusak,” said Vicki Maijor, Raquel Habert’s mother.

According to Claudia Roden, an expert on Jewish cooking who grew up in the community in Cairo, brides-to-be with long fingers were especially prized – the better to make classic dishes like stuffed zucchini and kibbe, ground beef stuffed into an impossibly thin shell of bulgur wheat. The women of the community still marry young – 19 is considered an appropriate age – and are then expected to learn to cook in earnest, preferably from their new mothers-in-law, who can instruct them on their new husbands’ tastes. “When my husband’s aunts visited us, they would go straight to the kitchen,” said Iris Towers, who married into the community in the 1950’s. “It was their job to teach me to make lahmejun and make sure the freezer was full when they left.”

Among the women I met, at least part of every day is still devoted to cooking = not only that night’s dinner for her husband and children and often other relatives, but also for the engagements, circumcisions, birthdays, anniversary parties, card games and bake sales that fuel a constant cycle of entertaining and celebration.

In August, I went to one of the community’s charity bake sales, held in a private home in the town of Deal on the New Jersey shore. Members of the community have spent summers there since the 1920’s: its culinary bible, a two-volume cookbook published by the sisterhood of the local synagogue, is titled “Deal Delights.” Each summer, the community’s butchers and other vendors from Kings Highway make deliveries to Deal or move there altogether, and the men commute to work in New York City via ferry.

There were at least 200 women at the sale, buying one another’s challahs, jars of bazargan (a cracked wheat salad flavored with tamarind and pine nuts), and pistachio cookies. The bake sale went on for hours, and included seminars on how to make “Syrian cheese,” a mozzarella-like twist that is pulled into fine shreds, then eaten with olive oil and pita bread. The sale cleared almost $75,000, estimated one community member who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the group’s strong taboos against discussing money with outsiders.

In the summer, even these demon cooks relax into a routine of grilled fish, salads and sandwiches by the pool. But as soon as they returned to Brooklyn, the women began stocking their freezers (many of them have not one but two large freezers in the basement) for autumn’s Jewish holidays. “We go from house to house for dinners and lunches,” said Shirley Mosseri, a mother of four who was born and raised in Brooklyn. “You can’t say no to food in this community,” she said as she expertly cored 20 small eggplants, removing all but the thinnest shell of purple skin, just as her grandmother had taught her.

In the community’s kitchens, there are many young women like Mrs. Mosseri – affluent, American-born, educated – who have embraced its traditional strictures instead of melting into the American middle class, with its opportunities for secular education, two-income families, and take-out for dinner four times a week.

“It took me a long time to get used to not shopping on the Sabbath, not watching TV, not driving, but now I like it,” said Mrs. Mosseri, who attended a secular school and finished college.

Those who have taken steps away from the community criticize its conformity, its increasing religiosity, and its harsher traditions. An unmarried women of 29, one lapsed member told me, is considered worthy of only a decrepit or widowed groom. But for those who remain, cooking – and, of course, endlessly talking about food – cements their ties to one another and to the past.

“You want to make it perfect, just like your grandmother did,” Raquel Habert said. “There’s nothing in the world I’d rather be doing than this.”


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