Aromas of Aleppo
“The Jews of Aleppo were famed for their refined and tasty cuisine, which was regarded
as ‘the pearl of the Arab kitchen.’ It is great to see that it lives on in New York and that
Poopa Dweck has put together such a wonderful collection of delicious recipes.”
—Claudia Roden, author of The New Book of Middle Eastern Food,
The Book of Jewish Food, and Arabesque
“Although I know nothing of Syrian Jewish cooking, the magnificent food in this spectacular tome comes to life as if from a recurring dream. The intuitive cooking of Syria must be from a past life of mine. I love every single dish and photo in this book, and the natural simplicity of the recipes make it all so easy—so much so that I must have made these dishes before…Wow!!!”
—Mario Batali, author of Molto Italiano
“The Syrian Jewish community of Aleppo had an illustrious past, and has continued to thrive and flourish since settling in America. Their wonderful kitchen redolent with spices and healthy exotic flavors holds an honored place in our Jewish culinary heritage. Poopa Dweck’s collection of delicious recipes and holiday lore will help this legacy live on.”
—Phyllis Glazer, author of The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking
“The delicious food of Aleppo is no secret, but Poopa Dweck’s heartfelt stories unveil a layer of Middle Eastern culture that is largely unknown. Her recipes are full of bright, rich, deep flavors, and her beautiful book goes right to the soul of Jewish Aleppo.”
—Ana Sortun, author of Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean
When the Aleppian Jewish community migrated from the ancient city of Aleppo in historic Syria and settled in the United States in the early twentieth century, their rich cuisine and vibrant culture came with them. Poopa Dweck, a first generation Syrian-Jewish American, has devoted much of her life to preserving and celebrating her community’s centuries-old legacy. As a young woman, it occurred to her that most Syrian-Jewish recipes were not written down: they existed only in the minds of older cooks. Recognizing the risk of depending solely upon older generations for culinary counsel, Dweck set out to document her community’s beloved cuisine.
Now, several years later, Dweck offers for posterity Aromas of Aleppo. More than a cookbook, it tells the story of the Aleppian Jewish community through its food,
describing the unique customs observed during the holidays and lifecycle events, along with the cultural significance of each dish. Among the irresistible recipes are:
g Bazargan—Tangy Tamarind Bulgur Salad
Shurbat Addes—Hearty Red Lentil Soup with Garlic
g Kibbeh—Stuffed Syrian Meatballs with Ground Rice
g Sambousak—Buttery Cheese-Filled Sesame Pastries
g Eras bi’Ajweh—Date-Filled Crescents
Like other Middle Eastern cuisines, Aleppian Jewish dishes are alive with flavor and healthful ingredients—featuring a host of spices, herbs, whole grains, vegetables, meats, and legumes—but with their own distinct cultural influences. In Aromas of Aleppo, cooks of all persuasions can discover Dweck’s most time-honored recipes, which range from maza (small delights) to daily meals and regal holiday feasts, including the traditional Passover seder. Representing the very best that this flourishing community has to offer, Aromas of Aleppo is a book to be treasured for generations to come.
Poopa Dweck is an expert on Aleppian Jewish cookery and the creator of Deal Delights cookbooks. A highly active community leader, she frequently lectures and performs cooking demonstrations. She is also the founder of the Jesse Dweck City Learning Center and Daughters of Sarah and the cofounder of the Sephardic Women’s Organization. Dweck lives in Deal, New Jersey, with her husband, and has five children.
Michael J. Cohen is an attorney and a food and travel writer. He lives in New York City.
Quentin Bacon is a New York-based photographer whose work has appeared in many cookbooks and magazines, including Nan Kempner’s R.S.V.P., Mario Batali’s Holiday Food, Gourmet, and Food and Wine.
Michelle Ishay-Cohen is an award-winning art director who has produced many cookbooks and illustrated books. She lives in New York City.
Aromas of Aleppo is a tribute to all the devoted women of my community, who are the foundation of our families, not to mention some of the greatest cooks I’ve come to know. They pray passionately for their children when they light the Sabbath candles every week; they tirelessly prepare incomparable holiday feasts; they keep our customs alive and observe our Jewish laws with diligence; they practice suffeh with effortless grace and draw the Shekhinah (G-d’s divine presence) into their homes. Truly, these women are the soul of our community, and I applaud each and every one of them.
I am eternally grateful to my parents, who guided me to where I am today. My mother, Sarine Kattan A”H (“May she rest in peace”), was a true woman of valor and expert cook who taught me everything I know with patience and love. My father, Mourad Kattan A”H, merits much praise for being a true Aleppian gentleman who would go to the market and assist in the kitchen after attending to his business affairs.
On an even more personal note, this book is dedicated to the memory of my beloved son Jesse A”H, may he rest in peace. When he passed on at the tender age of eighteen in 2003, I had been entrenched in Aromas of Aleppo. From the beginning of my dream to publish Aromas, Jesse was always by my side, believing in me and helping me in every way he could. When he passed on, I was unable to continue pursuing that dream for over a year. I was crushed, devastated. But I was determined to have something good come from his passing and I wanted to honor him. I immediately started the Jesse Dweck City Learning Center in New York. All of my share of the proceeds from Aromas of Aleppo will go to the Jesse Dweck City Learning Center. This center reflects who Jesse was: a young man who related well in this world, who cherished and touched everyone he knew, but who also had a deep, spiritual side that he always took time to nourish.
With the love and support of my husband, Sam, and the encouragement of my children—Eli, Mark, Sheri, and Sarine—my son-in-law Eddie, and daughters-in-law Nicole and Carina, and the rest of my extended family, I eventually regained the courage to continue working on Aromas of Aleppo. I knew that Jesse A”H would have wanted me to do so. He was my biggest fan. After his passing I saw yad Hashem (“the hand of G-d”), and a publisher was found. Somehow, I connect this miracle to Jesse A”H.
The rabbis of the Aleppian Jewish community are the steadfast guardians of the community’s rich traditions, who continue to advance the community’s great legacy of religious scholarship. With the wisdom and encouragement of our rabbis, we strive to attain the highest levels of spirituality in everything we do. I am honored and blessed to have received the contribution of the following rabbis: Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Rabbi Eli Ben-Haim, Professor Rachimim Cohen, Rabbi Shlomo Diamond, Rabbi Isaac Dwek, Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, Rabbi Ezra Labaton, Rabbi Moshe Malka, Rabbi Eli Mansour, Rabbi Edmund Nahum, and Rabbi David Sutton.
A cookbook is as good as the output of its recipes. I am indebted to the many friends and family members who helped me test the recipes in this book and provided me with invaluable feedback. Heartfelt thanks to all. I am also grateful to the countless community members who graciously welcomed me into their homes and provided cultural and historical insights that are vital to our traditions and cuisine. Among this group, I extend a special thank you to our elders who were raised in Aleppo early in the twentieth century and paved the way for our successful settlement in the United States. Of our elders, I must specially acknowledge the following two, whom I had the honor and privilege to interview and are no longer with us: Joseph Beyda A”H, who dedicated himself throughout his lifetime to better the community, and Sam Catton A”H, a pillar of our community who published thousands of prayer books that have perpetuated our community’s peerless liturgical traditions.
Thank you to all the grocers and specialty stores for providing the community with ingredients to enjoy our delicious cuisine and for welcoming the cameras and questions with a smile.
Sheila Schweky of the Sephardic Community Center Archives and Rabbi Ephriam Levi of Jerusalem granted me access to hundreds of precious community photographs, many of which we selected for inclusion in this book.
Marlene Ben-Dayan, Rochelle Jemal, Carol Haber, Bonnie Mansour, and Alice Shalom offered me incisive feedback on the day-to-day side, and many other women
let me draw on their well-versed Torah knowledge.
On the publishing side, I’m grateful to Judith Regan, who opened her door to me and allowed my dream to begin. I’m grateful to Anna Bliss, my editor, who walked me through the process with expertise, sincerity, and grace. I must also applaud Nina Rosenstein for providing invaluable, eleventh-hour proofreading and editorial input. I cannot forget Mark Jackson, whose diligence and attention helped this project go smoothly. And I am grateful to Dan Halpern of Ecco for sharing my excitement and passion for Aromas, for his encouragement and fresh insight during the project’s last mile.
Thanks to Erica Heitman-Ford at Mucca Design for working with the multifaceted artwork, creating an ethnic and modern design, and reflecting the community in this beautiful book.
Quentin Bacon is the brilliant eye behind this book’s uncompromisingly beautiful photographs. Quentin’s gorgeous output lifted this project to a lofty place that I could never have dreamed of. He and his assistant, Lauren Volo, deserve the highest praise for the professionalism, punctuality, and patience over the course of the many shoots we did together.
A giant thank you goes to Michelle Ishay, my mentor, “agent,” designer, and, most of all, my friend. Without Michelle, there is no Aromas. From the beginning she believed in me and the project, exploring every resource in her arsenal; she has been with me every step of the way. She is surely one of the most uniquely talented artists and understands our remarkable community. Thanks to Michelle’s extraordinary design talents, exquisite taste, and sense of style, Aromas is as beautiful as the story it portrays.
Another enormous thank you goes to Michael J. Cohen, who shares my love and passion for the history and food of our community. His writing has crystallized a legacy that is special and unique. Even with his busy schedule, he saw the significance of this project and took great care in documenting our legacy in the most eloquent manner. His contribution surpassed all of my expectations, and his patience, perseverance, dedication, sincerity, devotion, and easy manner have all made this possible.
And finally, a heartfelt thank you to my extraordinary husband, Sammy. His love and faith in me, along with all his support, patience, wisdom, and guidance, have given me the courage and confidence to bring my dream to fruition.
isit an Aleppian Jewish home on any given morning, and you can identify the day of the week by the richly perfumed air wafting from the busy kitchen. If you detect the nuttiness of lentils suffused with sweet onions, it is Thursday and mujedrah (Rice with Brown Lentils and Frizzled Caramelized Onions, page 125) is on the stove, perhaps accompanied by the homey notes of egg, cheese, and spinach that signal spanekh b’jibn (Spinach-Cheese Frittata, page 224). If it is Friday, the traditional Aleppian Sabbath dishes will be simmering, and you will encounter a mélange of aromas—the concentrated tang of ouc (tamarind concentrate) in keftes (Tamarind-Stewed Meatballs, page 162), the bright herbal essence of mint emanating from kibbeh hamdah (Lemon-Mint Broth with Mixed Vegetables and Syrian Meatballs, page 97), and the deep musk of eggplant from s’fiha (Stuffed Baby Eggplants with Ground Meat and Rice, page 138). While these dishes were developed long ago in Aleppo, an ancient city in the northwestern plains of Syria, Aleppian Jewish cooks around the world are still passionately preparing them today.
The kitchen is the soul of the Aleppian Jewish home, and I feel truly honored and blessed to be able to bring you Aromas of Aleppo, which conveys the warmth and love at the heart of our cuisine. I have been a lifelong member of the community of Aleppian Jews in New York, but my interest in our cuisine took a momentous turn during the mid-1970s when I got involved in documenting the recipes of Jewish Aleppo with a group of like-minded community cooks. Most Syrian recipes were not written down; they existed only in the minds of older cooks. My peers and I wondered whether our kids would follow our mothers’ and grandmothers’ approach
to cooking and maintain the deep understanding of our unique customs.
America being the assimilative force it is, we were determined to ensure that the centuries-old foodways and traditions of Jewish Aleppo would continue for generations to come. Under the auspices of the Sephardic Women’s Organization, in 1976 we self-published a collection of Aleppian Jewish recipes called Deal Delights. This humble red vinyl–bound book became an instant success in Sephardic communities around the world. It raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity. Two more volumes followed. All three can be found in the kitchen of almost every Aleppian Jewish cook.
Now the time has come to document and update our recipes more fully and add a thorough explanation of our intriguing customs, all in one book. It is with great joy
that I share with sophisticated cooks everywhere the best
my community has to offer. Aleppian Jewish cookery gracefully combines Mediterranean and Levantine influences with dishes that range from quotidian workman’s meals fit for the midday Aleppo market siesta to the regal opulence of a traditional Passover seder. Our cuisine features dishes that are both disarmingly familiar, exotic,and, above all, healthful.
My community represents a link to a forgotten past. It is one of the few Jewish communities to live through the rise and fall of Moorish Spain and the Ottoman Empire and survive as a modern people in the West while maintaining its venerable traditions. Our soulful culture, with its fervid, tuneful songs and communal celebratory feasts, is at its most vibrant during the Sabbath, holidays, and life-cycle events. One of the most artful representations of Aleppian Jewish culture is our food, whose story I have yearned to tell.
I offer Aromas of Aleppo as a gift to my children and the community at large. I hope it will serve as another resource to teach us about our traditions and the profound values that inform our holiday practices.
Finally, with great pleasure, I say to all, Sifrah daimeh, “May your table always be plentiful.”
Deal, New Jersey
The Jewish Community of Aleppo
The first Jew settled in Aleppo, Syria, around 586 BCE—and that’s not counting the First Jew, Abraham, who is said to have stopped there during his sojourn to Canaan and shared the milk of his goats with the poor he found on the slopes of the hill town. That legend inspired the city’s Arabic name, Haleb, which means “milk” or “he milked.” If there ever was a town fit to carry the name of such an elemental food, it is Aleppo.
Over the centuries, Aleppian cooks have done wonders not only with milk but also with a host of spices, herbs, grains, vegetables, meats, and legumes. The most timeless recipes of the Middle East owe a debt to Aleppo, from the simple and soulful addes soup of red lentils dusted with cumin to the Syrian classic of fried kibbeh nabelsieh (Golden Ground Meat–Filled Bulgur Shells, page 53) eaten with a squeeze of lemon. The Jews of this great culinary city—the last of whom left Aleppo in 1997—have contributed to its legacy, adding their own creations as a result of their kosher diet and diverse origins. As you discover the scrumptious dishes in the pages ahead, you will find that Abraham’s descendants have measurably improved upon the skins of goat’s milk he left in Aleppo.
Aleppo sits on the banks of the Quweiq River amid the dry plains of northwest Syria, equidistant from the Euphrates River and the Mediterranean Sea. It is a city that has been known by many names. The Venetians adopted the name Aleppo and the French called it Alep (both are derivations of Haleb), while the Romans named it Beroa. The Jews have always referred to the city as Aram Soba, which is the name that dates back the furthest; it’s mentioned in Psalm 60 and Sefer HaYashar 22:39 (an apocryphal text). The name Aram Soba derives from Aram, who was the son of Abraham’s half-brother Soba. Aram was a very wealthy man and was the first to develop the land on which Aleppo sits.
Aleppo’s diverse nomenclature is dwarfed by the city’s long list of conquerors, which includes the Amorites, Hittites, Romans, various Arab dynasties, Mongols (twice), Mameluks, Ottomans, and the French. Aleppo vies with Damascus, its chief rival two hundred miles to the south, for the honor of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Aleppo has outlived most of its rulers and continues to be the home of two million inhabitants.
Jews first settled in Aleppo during the reign of King David, when legend has it that Judea’s military commander, Joab ben Seruyah, captured the town. The Great Synagogue of Aleppo, a magnificent Byzantine structure dating from at least as far back as the ninth century CE, was consecrated in memory of Joab. Notwithstanding Jewish lore, Jews very likely settled in Aleppo in the sixth century BCE during the Babylonian exile that followed the destruction of the first Jewish Temple. The Jewish presence in Aleppo continued through Seleucid and Roman rule (fourth century BCE to first century CE) and certainly after the destruction of the second Jewish Temple in 69 CE. The Jews who were native to Aleppo from the time of antiquity were known as the must’arabia, meaning “would-be Arabs.” Jewish communities also existed in Damascus and a few small Syrian towns.
During the Byzantine Empire, in the early centuries of the Common Era, regional commerce began to flourish in Aleppo. Unfortunately, the Christian overlords did not treat the Jews well, and this hampered the community’s ability to prosper. However, under the rule of the Arab Abbasid dynasty (eighth to tenth centuries), the Jewish community of Aleppo began to achieve significant growth and stature, despite a relative decline in prosperity caused by incessant regional warfare. The community built the Great Synagogue during this time. Many Jews arrived from Iraq, fleeing the hostile treatment of the Persians. Leading rabbinical scholars, such as Baruch ben Isaac and Baruch ben Samuel, resided in Aleppo and corresponded with other great sages of the day who were living in Baghdad, Cairo, and Spain. In fact, Maimonides wrote his classic A Guide
for the Perplexed in the form of a letter to his Aleppian colleague Joseph ben Judah ibn Shimon. In another of his writings, this time an epistle to the community of Lunel (located today in the French region of Languedoc-Roussillon), Maimonides praised the scholarship and spirituality of the Aleppo community, citing Aram Soba as one of the few centers of light in comparison to the lackluster standards of religious awareness that prevailed in other Diaspora (Jewish exile) communities.
The progress of Aleppian Jews continued under Ayubbid rule from 1170 to 1260, although two Mongol invasions shook the community and laid waste to the city. The Jews miraculously survived the first invasion in 1260 by hiding in the Great Synagogue as the eastern warriors indiscriminately slaughtered many other Aleppians. However, the ruthless Tamerlane, who led the second invasion in 1400, succeeded in killing many Jews. The community recovered within fifty years and continued its activities in an atmosphere of relative tolerance under the Mameluks, who ruled until 1516. But in that fateful year the future of Aleppo took yet another turn, when Selim the Excellent bloodlessly captured the city under the Ottoman flag, which would soon be flying over a vast empire spanning from Egypt to lands as far as Hungary.
From Spain to Syria
In the late centuries before the Common Era, many Jews followed their Roman colonizers, journeying beyond the Middle East to the Western Mediterranean, particularly
to Spain and France. The now-vanished tombstone of
young Anna Salomonula evidenced a Jewish presence in Spain as early as the third century; etched on the stone was the word Iudea, Latin for “Jewess.” The early period of Sepharad (Hebrew for “Spain”) was relatively modest for
the Jews. The Romans enacted numerous regulations limiting interactions between Christians and Jews, though their rule was not oppressive. The Jews formed communities throughout every region of Spain, from Catalonia in the northeast to Andalusia in the south and Castile in the center.
In 414 the unenlightened Visigoths emerged as the new rulers of the Iberian peninsula. The fate of Spanish Jews under their rule was grim. The Jews suffered when the Visigoth king of Spain, Recared the First, promulgated a series of anti-Jewish laws, inspired by the despot’s conversion to Catholicism in 586. King Sisebut ordered the forced conversion of Jews in 613. In the late seventh century, suspicion loomed in the Visigothic court that the Jews were collaborating with Islamic insurgents. By 693 the Visigoths banned the Jews from conducting any commercial activity. Relief arrived on the peninsula in 711 in the guise of the Muslim conquest that swept through the Mediterranean. Impressed with Spain’s lush vegetation, the Arabs named the first town they seized Algeciras, a Latinized version of al-jazira al-hadra, Arabic for “the green island.”
Indeed, the Iberian peninsula was a fertile land and its new conquerors immediately grasped its potential. The Arabs introduced the latest in agricultural technology and planted crops previously unknown to that region, such as rice, hard wheat, sugarcane, spinach, eggplant, artichokes, almonds, citrus fruits, bananas, and mangos, bringing about what can only be termed a revolution or a true golden age. Trade exploded throughout the Mediterranean as the Arabs took control of the great sea from east to west. In the lands under Arab rule, scholarship in philosophy, science, and medicine was unmatched by any other civilization. And the Jews played no small role. In fact, the Jews built a vast network of communities throughout Spain, Italy, and other lands under Islamic control. Armed with knowledge of many languages as a result of their wanderings, Jews served as commercial intermediaries between Arabs and Christians. This phenomenon epitomized the unparalleled era of convivencia (“coexistence”), in which the Muslims, Christians, and Jews of Spain prospered and lived in relative harmony.
The thriving Jews of Spain produced many leading lights in the course of their history, including the first Sephardic court noble, Hasdai ibn Shaprut; the peerless philosopher-physician Maimonides; Ramban, a great Catalan sage; Judah HaLevi, the poet, philosopher, and religious scholar who authored The Book of the Kuzari; and the rhapsodic poet Solomon ibn Gabirol, whose poems are still featured in the liturgy of many Sephardic communities.
The Islamic golden age ended with the conquest of southern Spain by the Almoravids in 1090 and the continued rule of the Almohads, tribal Berber groups from North Africa who ruled the Jews with a heavy hand. Most Jews fled to the northern Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Catalonia, and Navarre. The Jews, masters of the pan-Mediterranean market, now aided the Catholic kings by bringing them wealth and encouraging the royals’ desire to rid the Iberian peninsula of Muslim rule and unify Spain under the Catholic flag. The marriage of Isabella of Aragon to Ferdinand of Castile in 1469 was nothing less than epochal, bringing the goal of reconquest ever closer. However, the stability of the Jewish community’s standing gradually deteriorated as Catholic intolerance grew throughout Spain. Even as Don Isaac Abravanel and Don Abraham Senior helped finance the Castile-Aragon drive to chase the Nasrid kingdom—the last Moors—out of Granada, the Jews were succumbing to a similar fate.
Beginning with the unprecedented and brutal pogrom in Sevilla’s juderia (Jewish quarter) in 1391, the prestige of Spanish Jewry began its precipitous decline. This attack was not the first expression of the ethnic cleansing of
Jews in Christendom; before 1391, Jews had been systematically expelled from England, France, Holland, Germany, and Italy. However, none of these European Jewish communities compared in size and glory to the Jews of Sepharad, a rich and powerful group whose members were reduced to choosing between conversion, exile, and a fiery death.
Many prominent Jews chose conversion. These conversos were known as New Christians or, pejoratively, as marranos, archaic Spanish for “swine.” Conversos used their vaunted skills to flourish in occupations that were previously denied them, including law, academia, government, and the military. Many rich conversos married into aristocratic but impecunious Old Christian families. Instantly, it seemed, these ex-Jews occupied leading positions throughout Spain. This aroused the envy of many Old Christians, who gradually lobbied for an Inquisition, which the Vatican authorized in 1480.
The Inquisition sought to prosecute New Christians who were backsliding into their old Jewish ways. A barbaric and shameful blemish on Iberian culture, the Inquisition statute remained on the books until 1834. Because the Inquisition applied only to baptized Christians, the Church had no jurisdiction over the stubborn pockets of Jews who remained in Spain despite the prevailing climate of hatred and oppression. Thus, in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella enacted the Edict of Expulsion, which officially banned all Jews from residing in Spain. In early August of that year, some speculate around the ninth of the Jewish month of Ab, an infamously tragic date in Jewish history, the last Jew tearfully departed by ship, leaving behind the glory of a thousand-year-old civilization that brought wealth, honor, and prestige to Spain.
Spanish Jews sought refuge wherever they were welcome, including North Africa, the Netherlands, and select provinces in Italy. While many kingdoms sought out the Jews for their mercantile acumen, they periodically banished the Jews, as well. This revolving-door policy was most pronounced in Italy, particularly in Venice, Genoa, and Ancona. Only one kingdom let the Jews be—the Ottoman Empire. As the Ottoman ruler, Sultan Beyazid II, opened his lands to the refugees from Spain, he criticized Ferdinand’s expulsion policy: “Can you call such a king wise and intelligent? He is impoverishing his country and enriching my kingdom.”
The Rise and Fall of
the Ottoman Empire
In the late fifteenth century, the first Jewish refugees from Spain arrived in Ottoman cities such as Istanbul, Salonika, and Smyrna. The Jews quickly made an impact. They filled high-profile positions in medicine and finance and also continued in their usual commercial roles as linguists, merchants, and artisans. One key technology that the Jews brought to their Ottoman hosts was the latest in munitions. As a result, Ottoman forces possessed more firepower, which probably contributed to the rapid expansion of the empire. The Jews also smuggled their movable type out of Spain and introduced the printing press to the Eastern Mediterranean. Salonika soon became the world center for Jewish publishing. Even as late as 1717, an English aristocrat, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, marveled at the Jews’ dominance in the Turkish city of Edirne:
I observed most of the rich tradesmen were Jews. That people are in incredible power in this country. They have many privileges above all the natural Turks themselves, and have formed a very considerable commonwealth here, being judged by their own laws, and have drawn the whole trade of the empire into their own hands, partly by the firm union among themselves, and prevailing on the idle temper and want of industry of the Turks. Every pasha has his Jew, who is his homme d’affaires; he is let into all his secrets, and does all his business. No bargain is made, no bribe received, no merchandise disposed of, but what passes through their hands. They are the physicians, the stewards, and the interpreters of all the great men. . . . They have found the secret of making themselves so necessary, they are certain of the protection of the court . . . and the meanest among them is too important to be disobliged, since the whole body take care of his interests with as much vigour as they would those of the most considerable of their members.
—Montagu, “To the Abbé Conti”
Spanish Jews who initially arrived in Turkey and Greece began to settle in cities farther east, such as Aleppo and Baghdad, upon the annexation of Arab lands by the Ottomans in 1516. Later in the sixteenth century, other Jews immigrated to Syria because they were fleeing the atmosphere of intolerance that was worsening in the Papal States and Italian kingdoms, capped by the auto-da-fé in Ancona in 1553, in which over two dozen Jews were killed.
At the turn of the seventeenth century, 73 of 380 Jewish households in Aleppo were of Spanish descent. Later, many prosperous Jewish traders from the lone Italian safe haven of Livorno settled in Aleppo; collectively, they were known as the Franj or Francos. Initially, the Spanish Jews, Franj, and must’arab (Jews native to Aleppo) communities remained separate from one other, marrying among themselves, convening their own prayer quorums, following their own rabbis, and operating within their own circles of trade. Though the must’arab community welcomed its brothers and sisters from the West, it did not instantly submit to the refined western lifestyle of the Spanish and Italian gentry and the learned opinions of the Spanish rabbinate on matters of Jewish law. Over time, however, the native and Sephardic communities combined and the distinctions between them disappeared.
Economically, Aleppo’s star began to rise around the turn of the seventeenth century as the silk trade with Venice reached a fever pitch. For the next 150 years, Aleppo gleamed as one of the brightest gems in the Ottoman crown, bringing prosperity to its citizens and great wealth to the sultans of Istanbul. The Aleppian Jewish community contributed to this economic expansion as did other Jews throughout the Ottoman lands. Jews from distant ports and trading centers such as Baghdad, Aleppo, Salonika, Livorno, Ragusa, and Venice did business with one another, serving as brokers between East and West, sharing common languages unknown to their native hosts, and forging bonds of trust as coreligionists singed by the bitterness of exile.
The Jews’ hold on Mediterranean trade was so tight that the English, who were exasperated with Aleppo’s khans (market storehouses), souqs (public markets), and brokers’ fees, used their unparalleled sea power and the global reach of their empire to cut out the need for the Oriental Jewish middleman and started to ship goods along the previously uncharted sea route from India and Southeast Asia around Cape Horn, all the way to the British Isles.
The period of Aleppo’s ascendance, from 1600 to 1750, was not a continuous boom; when the roar of trade was intermittently silenced, Aleppo, along with many other Mediterranean cities, experienced periods of strife, disease, and disaster. Nonetheless, as market profits swelled, Aleppo blossomed into a cosmopolitan hub with an abundance of goods—Persian silk, Indian spices, Syrian cotton and wool, and a bounty of fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts for local consumption. There were traders representing all the upstart European powers, each with its own center of operations, or “factory,” as it was known.
On the raft of good times, many culinary influences converged, from Persian to Turkish to medieval Arab court cookery, and a discernible Aleppian cuisine began to develop. Recipes that once were reserved for princes, such as those documented by al Baghdadi and al Warraq a few centuries earlier, began to be enjoyed by the commoner. Food evolved from the crude, humble fare of hand-to-mouth sustenance to the multihued centerpiece of religious and life-cycle festivities and a source of regional pride.
Aleppian Jewish families, each snugly ensconced in its haush (multiple dwellings surrounding an inner courtyard) in the Bahsita quarter of old Aleppo, proudly adhered to their culture as they celebrated life. They would enjoy various maza plates on Sabbath afternoons as they reveled in poetic religious songs based on Arabic melodies. In these songs, collectively known as pizmonim, one could hear the faint laments of the flamenco cantante and the yearning of the muezzin. Their prayer services were also marked by this wide-ranging melodic style; the maqamat (the Arab system of melodies) of the Aram Soba liturgy is still considered one of the most vibrant and moving in all of Judaism. With song came music. Once the sanctity of the Sabbath, with its prohibition against playing instruments, came to its weekly close, many Jews delighted in strumming the ‘ud (lute), tap-tapping the dara’bukkah (hourglass lap drum), and playing other tuneful instruments, such as the qanun (zither) and nay (flute), which define the swooning Levantine sound.
Aleppian Jews also took pride in their devotion to mysticism, sacred and profane. The Aleppian rabbinate, expert in ethics and Jewish law, participated in a regional kabbalistic brotherhood, which originated in late-medieval Safed, the famed birthplace of the Kabbalah in the heart of the Galilee. On the other hand, some of the laypeople absorbed the common superstitions of the time, taking pains to ward off the evil eye and to seek the protection of the hamseh, the filigreed hand still found around the necks of many Jews of Middle Eastern descent, and the shebeh, a cloth-enclosed stone also worn as a pendant.
As Venetian and English trade in Aleppo declined in the eighteenth century, the grip of the Ottoman court over its empire started to weaken. The world-exploring West began to triumph over the stagnating East. In this climate, Aleppo shrunk to a mere regional commercial player. Initially, this period of decline did not threaten the existence and stature of the Aleppian Jewish community. Once the nineteenth century arrived, however, the Middle East fell noticeably behind its rivals to the west, which began to reap the rewards of industrialization and modernity. The Ottoman Empire was thus dramatically diminished in this period—territorially, economically, and militarily—and the security of Jews began to unravel.
In 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal to the south relegated Aleppo to commercial irrelevance. Many Jews left Aleppo to seek their fortunes in Beirut and Cairo, while others moved to newly developed, spacious Jamaliya neighborhoods outside the old city. During the same year, the Alliance Israelite Universelle, the brainchild of liberal French Jews, established a boys’ school in Aleppo. The school taught secular studies alongside a Judaic curriculum, preparing the youth for future immigration to the modernized West. However, the Aleppo rabbinate did not fully endorse this school because its curriculum and educators were not in keeping with the community’s high standard of Jewish education and strict religious practices. Once the twentieth century arrived, a few intrepid Jews, mostly single men, fled to the Americas. This exodus
rapidly increased as World War I approached in 1914 and the Turks began to conscript Jews for military service. Rather than fight for a crumbling empire, many Jewish families left Aleppo.
The Ottoman Aftermath
Still, many Jews remained in Aleppo during the period of the French Mandate, which followed the Ottomans’ demise in 1918. In 1946 the French left the region and Syria became a sovereign nation. Virulent Arab nationalism, coupled with the announcement of the 1947 U.N. partition of Palestine, fueled a pogrom in Aleppo that has scarred the community to this day. Mobs forcibly entered the Cave of Elijah the Prophet, at the Great Synagogue, vandalized many religious objects, and left the holy place in flames.
Among the damaged items was the Aleppo Codex, known as the Keter (“crown” in Hebrew), one of the most—if not the most—sacred Jewish manuscripts extant. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qumran, the Codex was the world’s oldest surviving complete Old Testament text, written in the early tenth century by Shlomo ben Buya’a and later supplemented by Aaron ben Asher. In its original form, the Codex contained the full text of the twenty-four books of the Old Testament with vocalization and cantillation marks. For centuries, biblical scholars and Torah scribes from around the world traveled to Aleppo, hoping to gain the trust of the Codex’s keepers and be given a chance to study the special document. In fact, scholars believe that Maimonides used the Codex as the model for his own Sefer Torah (parchment scroll of the Five Books of Moses). In 1958, members of the community smuggled the considerably damaged Codex into Israel, where it resides today in the collection of the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.
The pogrom of 1947 was one of the clearest signals that the champions of Arab nationalism did not welcome a Jewish presence in Syria. This surge in anti-Semitism led to the flight of more Jews from Aleppo. From 1946 until 1970, the remaining community suffered restrictions in human rights and faced shrinking economic opportunities under the benighted rule of a succession of Syrian dictators. In 1970, Hafez al Assad’s Ba’ath party took control of Syria. As the new leader, Assad secularized Syrian society and attempted to modernize its economy, deflecting attention from the Jews and thus improving their living conditions. Despite the relative improvement in quality of life, the Mukhabarat (Syria’s secret police) kept the Jewish community under constant surveillance. In addition, under Assad, Jews could not leave Syria without posting an onerous bond and leaving behind family members, measures cruelly designed to secure their return.
This travel ban continued until 1992, when Assad, feeling the pain of the demise of the Soviet Union, his erstwhile sponsor, finally submitted to pressure from Jewish organizations and foreign governments and lifted the travel ban. At that time, a quarter of the Jews still residing in Syria hailed from Aleppo. Most of the four thousand Syrian Jews immediately applied for tourist visas and immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Brooklyn, though many eventually moved to Israel. The paltry few who remained in Aleppo at that time consisted mostly of the elderly and those who did not want to leave behind significant business interests. Now, for the first time in over two thousand years, there is not a single Jew living in Aleppo, but the culture of the Jewish community from Aleppo still thrives in many corners of the world.
The Contemporary Aleppian
Jewish Community Endures
The exact population of Jews of Aleppian descent worldwide is not known, but it is probably over 100,000, distinguishing them as the largest Sephardic community in the Diaspora. The flagship Aleppian community in Brooklyn, New York, was founded in 1919. Smaller branches of the community exist in Latin American cities such as Mexico City, Panama City, Caracas, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo and in many places throughout Israel.
Before moving to Brooklyn early in the twentieth century, the first pioneering Aleppian immigrants settled in the cramped quarters of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. These Arabic Jews, with their bizarre language and olive skin, felt like strangers among the teeming hordes on Orchard Street. In fact, many European Jewish immigrants were convinced that the Aleppians were not Jewish because they did not understand Yiddish. This sense of alienation and culture shock compelled the early community members to band together and help one another adjust to their new Western lives. The more settled immigrants lent a hand to the newcomers, providing them with a floor to sleep on, goods to peddle, and a Sabbath meal to enjoy. Instead of assimilating into the masses, Aleppian Jews strengthened their identity by following the customs and traditions that set them apart. After several years, the community jelled and, under the spiritual leadership of the peerless Rabbi Jacob Kassin, headed to the southern reaches of Brooklyn and established a permanent American home.
While the Aleppo community’s environs have multiplied, very little else has. Aleppian Jews still do business with one another as they did in Aleppo, mostly as dealers in apparel and textiles, though many young men and women have acquired university degrees and joined the professional ranks. Wherever they have settled, Aleppian Jews have founded synagogues and charitable and educational institutions to maintain Jewish values and Syrian traditions and promote cohesion among all community members. The Aleppian Jews have remained a close-knit people, emigrating from Syria and forming strong communities in Israel and the Americas. Even more remarkable, the third and fourth generations born in these lands have defied assimilation. Their ties transcend national boundaries: a New York Aleppian could walk into the home of his Panamanian cousin and breathe in the same enchanting aromas that he knows well from his mother’s Brooklyn kitchen. Relatives often cross national borders and fly long distances for wedding and bar mitzvah celebrations and to vacation together in the summer and winter. In a word, the Aleppian community is quintessentially Sephardic: proud, pious, worldly, and hardworking, maintaining a low profile despite its successes.
People of the Souq
Before the late nineteenth century, Aleppo was a major commercial hub, situated as it was on the major caravan routes connecting Europe and Asia. Throughout their history, Aleppian Jews, whether originally from Spain or natives of Syria, have been masters of the marketplace. According to a Syrian adage, an Aleppian can even sell a dried donkey skin. Aleppian Jews are a mercantile people today, much as they were in the past. While the garment markets of Manhattan are a far cry from the serpentine souqs and cavernous khans of Aleppo, the colorful and persuasive style and the handshake agreement are still hallmarks of the Aleppian merchant.
In the same way that the identity and economic status of Aleppo’s Jews has historically depended on the market, their cuisine represents the essence of the Middle Eastern souq. Grains such as rice, bulgur, and semolina are central ingredients in many Aleppian Jewish dishes and serve as accompaniments to an even larger number of recipes. Jews have always been fond of fruits and vegetables. As an alternative to meat, which was expensive in Aleppo and had to be ritually slaughtered and salted (see A Note about Kashrut on page 10), vegetables provided sustenance. Aleppian Jewish women to this day will gather and stuff any vegetable that can hold the traditional hashu filling. From the time of Moorish Spain, Aleppian Jews have always enjoyed fresh fruit at the close of a meal. They still insist on unblemished and flavorful fruit for dessert, which is usually accompanied by an array of dried fruit and roasted nuts and seeds. Dessert is limited to fruit and nuts because, by the end of an Aleppian Jewish meal, one is usually too full to consume any sweetmeats or pastries. Thus, Aleppians usually serve their exquisite and fragrant sweets during midafternoon coffee breaks or festive celebrations rather than at the end of typical meals.
In the Aleppian Jewish kitchen, one will find several bags filled with a veritable rainbow of spices, from the deep brown of allspice to the moody dark ochre of cumin to the bright yellow of turmeric. Most of these spices arrived in Aleppo from India and East Asia. However, not all Syrians employ them with Aleppian vigor. While the cuisine of Aleppo is greatly influenced by Turkish cookery, Aleppian cooks use spices and herbs far more liberally than the cooks of Istanbul. Aleppian Jews also depart from mainstream Syrian cuisine in their widespread use of dried fruits and fruit pastes, an homage to the flavors of Persia brought by itinerant Jewish traders and émigrés from the Jewish communities east of Aleppo.
Northern Syria is famous for the numerous olive groves that yield the deeply aromatic olive oils found in the Aleppo market. Aleppian Jewish cuisine has stood apart from the cuisines of its Syrian Arab and Christian counterparts in its use of oil as the cooking fat of choice. The traditional Syrian fats, clarified butter (samna) and lamb fat (alya), derive from animal sources and cannot be freely mixed with many dishes because of kashrut restrictions. In contrast, oil can be used to cook dairy and meat dishes alike because it is a neutral vegetable product. Sephardic Jewish cuisine has been associated with olive oil since the time Jews lived in Spain. In fact Andrés Bernáldez, an Inquisition-era royal chronicler, ridiculed the Jews’ trademark use of olive oil:
They cooked their meat in olive oil, which they used instead of salt-pork or other fat, so as to avoid pork. Olive oil with meat and other fried things leaves a very unpleasant odor, and so their houses and doorways stunk with the odor of that food. The Jews too gave off the same odor, on account of those foods, and because they were not baptized.
—Gitliz and Davidson, A Drizzle of Honey
Ironically, this practice is one of the few vestiges of Jewish life that have been adopted by the mainstream Ibero-Christian culture. Spanish cuisine today is unthinkable without its prodigious use of olive oil. When lighter vegetable oils became available, however, many Aleppian Jews prized their thinner body and neutral flavor and substituted them for olive oil, especially for frying.
Suffeh—the Highest Praise for
the Aleppian Jewish Woman
Cooking in the Aleppian Jewish style goes beyond fine ingredients and adherence to religious laws and customs. It is a part of daily life and essential to opening one’s home to family, friends, and neighbors. Women are central to the continuity and development of Aleppian Jewish cookery. Historically, the role of women in the Aleppo workplace was limited. Generally, a woman’s responsibility was keeping the home in good order and gathering the ingredients needed for simple lunches and dinners. And it was no small task, especially in the days when she had to lug pots to communal ovens and deftly maneuver within the tight quarters of the haush in order to cook.
Aleppian Jewish women take pride in being savvy food shoppers, excellent cooks, and warm hostesses. These qualities are embodied in the concept of suffeh (pronounced SUH-feh), which literally means “orderliness” but is understood by Aleppian Jews to mean a high degree of poise, an appreciation of etiquette, and an ability to create a feeling of domestic warmth that even exceeds the effusive, open-armed hospitality of Middle Eastern lore. To say a woman has suffeh is one of the highest compliments among Aleppian Jews.
Suffeh capitalizes on a woman’s sixth sense, or divine intuition, into matters of familial and communal significance. In the Jewish tradition, the woman is
believed to be endowed with purity of soul and thus to possess the capability of entreating the Shekhinah
(G-d’s divine presence) to dwell in her home and bless
her family. This concept derives from Psalm 100, which states, “Serve the Almighty with gladness, come before
Him with joyous song.”
This spiritual devotion informs their regular practice of reading the Book of Psalms (Tehillim). It also drives their preparation of food, especially for the holiday and Sabbath tables, the ultimate stages upon which the Syrian woman shines as a culinary diva. A woman with suffeh cooks with passion. She does not view the enormous task of preparing a holiday meal for fifteen or twenty as a chore—in fact, she feels energized by it. Suffeh involves looking for small shiny eggplants for pickling and stuffing, spotting firm and fresh string beans, and finding tender sweetbreads at the butcher’s to prepare with mushrooms in anticipation of the favorite dishes of grandchildren, children, and guests. A woman with suffeh is awe-inspiring to her guests as she serenades and satiates their appetites with the bountiful delicacies before them.
The exercise of suffeh is not simply reserved for special occasions. An Aleppian Jewish woman must be ready at all times to greet the zwarh bala azimeh (“unexpected guests”) with a warm “Fadal’u!” (“Welcome!”), whether they are new faces, friends, acquaintances, or relatives. She then repairs to the kitchen to retrieve a selection of specially prepared delicacies while the aroma of freshly brewed ‘ahweh (Arabic Coffee, page 318) slowly fills her home. This kind of hospitality harks back to the first Jewish forefather, Abraham, who was renown for the mitzvah of hakhnasat orkhim (the greeting and receiving of guests), inviting all itinerant passersby in need of sustenance and rest into his tent.
While Aleppian women today have active lives outside
the home and often are highly educated, the goal of attaining suffeh has not diminished. To a significant extent, it has kept the flame of Aleppian Jewish culture burning and served as the glue that has bound this unique community together. Just as Jews have handed down their mesorah (sacred Jewish traditions) over the centuries, Aleppian Jewish women have handed down the wisdom of suffeh. This process will be at work when you enter a busy Aleppian Jewish kitchen. You will more than likely encounter two, if not three or even four, generations of a family at work. They may be preparing separate dishes or laboring in unison on a single recipe. For example, if they are preparing yebra (Grape Leaves Stuffed with Ground Meat and Rice, with Apricot-Tamarind Sauce, page 150), you may find the eldest woman trimming the grape leaves, the youngest smoothing out the vein, her mother placing the meat filling inside and then relaying each filled leaf to her mother to roll and close. It is by cooking together, eating together, and remaining together that women practice the art of suffeh and preserve the ageless legacy of Aleppian Jewish cuisine.
A Note about Kashrut
Aleppian Jews have always been highly traditional and strictly observant in their religious practices. The cuisine of the Aleppian Jews embodies the principles of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws set out in the Torah and expanded upon over the centuries by rabbinical opinion. In addition to following the laws of kashrut, which is Hebrew for “fit” or “proper,” Aleppian Jews recite blessings before and after eating, acknowledging G-d for the variety and quality of sustenance before them.
There is no one clear reason why the laws of kashrut
exist. While some scholars have cited the promotion of
good hygiene or the ethical treatment of animals as the primary rationales for kashrut, rabbinical opinions differ regarding the basis of why Jews eat kosher. Although the hygienic and ethical benefits of kashrut are undeniable, the fundamental belief is that the rules of kashrut have been prescribed by divine fiat—that is, Jews observe these rules simply because G-d commanded them to.
Kashrut restricts the kind of animals that a Jew can eat and prescribes a ritualized method of slaughtering permissible animals. All nonfowl livestock must have cloven hoofs and chew their cud (Leviticus 11:3). Cow, ox, lamb, goat, and deer are kosher, but pig, camel, and rabbit are not. The Torah sets forth the permissible and prohibited types of fowl. Permitted fowl include chicken, turkey, duck, goose, pheasant, and pigeon. Birds that are not traditionally consumed by Jews, such as many predatory birds, are designated as nonkosher.
A shohet (religiously ordained slaughterer) is the only person who can slaughter livestock. The procedure for kosher slaughtering is designed to inflict the least amount of pain on the animal. The shohet uses a flawless blade to slit the animal’s trachea and esophagus quickly and precisely, limiting the duration and degree of the animal’s suffering. This respect for the animal’s well-being reminds each Jew to heed his ethical and humanitarian responsibilities, even in the everyday realm of gastronomy. By this logic, undertaking a mindful approach to the simple act of eating leads one to apply a greater level of conscientiousness to more serious matters.
Once an animal is slaughtered, its flesh is soaked and salted to remove all traces of blood, which Jews are forbidden to consume. They also avoid the hindquarters of nonfowl livestock, which are not kosher—a symbolic reminder of the thigh injury that Jacob sustained when he wrestled Esau’s guardian angel (Genesis 32:33). However, these parts can be made kosher after the painstaking removal of certain veins and fat deposits.
The rules regarding fish are less stringent. Fish need only scales and fins to be kosher, and there is no special slaughtering procedure (Leviticus 11:9). Thus, most varieties of fish are kosher; some exceptions are swordfish, skate, sturgeon, monkfish, and catfish. Scavenging sea creatures, which include all shellfish, are not kosher because they fall into the nonkosher biblical category of “swarming organisms” (Leviticus 11:10).
All grains, fruits, and vegetables are kosher. However, Jewish cooks separate and examine grains thoroughly, wash and inspect greens, and cut open fruit to ensure that there are no unkosher insects or worms present.
Kashrut-observing Jews do not cook or eat meat and dairy foods together because of the biblical proscription against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:21). Thus, Aleppian Jews keep separate cookware, cutlery, and china for meat and dairy meals. They also wait six hours after consuming meat before eating dairy foods. However, the wait is negligible when eating meat after dairy because dairy foods are digested more quickly. Fish, grains, fruits, and vegetables are neutral (pareve) foods that can be freely eaten with meat or dairy. When Syrian Jews serve fish and meat in the same meal, however, they use a separate, clean set of cutlery and china for each.
These dietary restrictions, while very similar to the halal rules of the Islamic diet, have led Aleppian Jews to deviate from many Middle Eastern recipes. Thus, none of the recipes in this book call for butter or yogurt and meat together, a common Arab combination. Similarly, Aleppian Jews generally do not cook with animal fat, sheep’s tail fat being the most popular variety in Syria, because it would place many neutral dishes in the meat category and thereby restrict the variety of dishes with which a cook can serve these otherwise neutral foods. Oil is used as a substitute for butter and animal fat, producing different flavor notes in these recipes than in their mainstream Arab counterparts. For instance, rice, while a neutral food, is generally cooked with oil instead of butter because it is commonly served with meat dishes. Also, many dairy desserts are served only after dairy meals or alone with coffee, which is another reason why a selection of fresh fruit and nuts is the dessert of choice after sumptuous meat meals.
Nonetheless, the recipes in this book demonstrate that the rules of kashrut have not hampered the development of Aleppian Jewish cuisine, but rather strengthened it by fueling culinary innovation and fostering a unique variation of Middle Eastern culture.