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Syrian-Jewish Cooking:
It's Influences & Differences

The Syrian-Arabic influence on Jewish cooking can be seen in the use of the grains, legumes, vegetables, and dried fruits commonly available to Jews in the markets of Aleppo and Damascus in dishes such as burghol m’jedrah (Crushed Wheat with Lentils) and dja’jeh mish mosh (Sweet-and-Tart Chicken with Apricots). The more Latin influences brought by the Spanish Jews can be seen as well; examples include the savory meat pie known as bastel (Savory Filled Pockets) to Syrians and bastiyeh to Moroccans can be traced to the pastelles that were prepared in Spain centuries ago. In Spain and Morocco, this meat pie is made with fila (perhaps better known as phyllo) dough; the Syrian-Jewish version is daintier (almost bite-size) and made of pastry dough. Another Syrian-Jewish dish with Spanish roots is kalsonnes b’rishtah (Syrian Cheese Dumplings with Egg Noodles), a cheese-filled pasta similar to the Italian tortellini. (It’s possible that the Italian calzone, a cheese-filled pocket of dough, is a near relative of kalsonnes.)

Differences developed naturally between the dishes of those Sephardic Jews who settled in Syria and those who moved to other parts of the world. For example, cumin, cinnamon, and allspice are the Syrians’ favorite spices, while Tunisians favor a peppery hot spice called harissa. Saffron, the red-orange threads from the stigmas of a flowering crocus, is a favorite of Persians and Moroccans. Moroccans simmer their tagines (stews) with olives and whole preserved lemons, whereas the Syrians rely heavily on a sweet-sour extract distilled from tamarinds and Persians add pomegranate juice to their sauces. Greek and Turkish bakers soak their pastries in honey; Syrians pour a more delicate rose water or orange-blossom syrup over their sweets.

Of course, like Jews the world over, the Syrian Jews (whom from this point on I mean to include all those Jews residing in Syria at this point) continued their practice of strict adherence to the dietary laws of kashrut (the Jewish or Hebrew term for the laws defining what is kosher, or ritually correct, according to Jewish Orthodox belief). Shellfish and certain kinds of meat, such as pork, are prohibited. We are told by the rabbis that these laws were set in place to teach us compassion. You may eat of an animal, but if you do, there are strict conditions that govern how the animal (and what kind of animal) may be slaughtered. To be kosher, all four-footed animals must both chew their cud and have split hooves; it is for this reason that pork is not permitted. The animal must be slaughtered in a specific manner so as to minimize its suffering. The animal must not be carnivorous. The consumption of birds of prey is forbidden. The law “Thou shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” is interpreted both literally and symbolically to mean that if you are to take the life of any animal, you should not be so callous as to cook it in the milk of its very own mother. For this reason, the separation of milk and meat is strictly enforced, and no dairy product may be consumed, mixed, or cooked with any animal product. (The Arab Jews, therefore, shun dishes with combinations such as yogurt with chicken, or butter with beef, unlike their Christian and Moslem neighbors.) It is not as clear why certain fish are not permitted, but even so, Jews follow the commandment that all fish must have both scales and fins to be deemed fit to eat. Therefore, the consumption of shellfish is prohibited.

In addition to kashrut, the laws of Shabbat hold that from sundown on Friday evening to sundown Saturday evening, Jews should not do any work, such as cooking, or light any fires, such as those in an oven. Syrian Jews, like Jews in other parts of the world, solved this problem by developing regional dishes that could simmer over a low flame for many hours at a time. In this manner, the housewife could prepare and begin cooking the food before Shabbat and keep it warm until it was time to eat in the evening. (Sometimes, the women would bring pots of food to their Arab neighbors, who would cook it for them or keep it hot until it was needed for the Sabbath meal.) The lunch meal on Saturday could also be served warm, and the flavor of these foods seemed to improve with time and additional heating. Many of the dishes in this book were originally created for this purpose, such as fassoulyeh (White Bean Stew with Meat and Cinnamon), lahmeh fil mehleh (Layered Meat with Eggplant and Tamarind Sauce), and meh’shi leban (Stuffed Yellow Squash with Mint).

Over time, the economy in Syria worsened, and the opening in 1869 of Egypt’s Suez Canal drastically changed the major caravan routes that had sustained centuries of trade. Prosperous Syrian Jewish caravan merchants lost their livelihood. While some of Syria’s Jews settled in Cairo to work for new canal-related businesses, others found their way to England. The opening of the canal precipitated the first major Syrian migration to the United States.

In the early 1920s, when the Turkish Empire started disintegrating during World War I, the majority of the Jews from Aleppo left Syria for America, hoping to find a more financially stable life. Initially they settled in large numbers on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where they joined Ashkenazic Jews who had arrived before them. Jews from Damascus settled in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, with a minority in New York. There were great differences between the Syrian Jews and their Jewish brethren from Eastern Europe. The lighter-skinned Ashkenazim spoke Yiddish; the darker Sephardim-Mizrahim spoke Arabic, and some also spoke and sang songs in Ladino, a Spanish-Jewish language that originated in Spain. The two Jewish cultures kept to themselves. The Syrians were viewed as uncivilized and primitive by the Ashkenazim, who called them “Arabs.” The Syrian Jews called the Ashkenazim “Jews who speak Jewish.” They also referred to any Ashkenazic Jew as a “J-Dub,” short for “JW” or “Jew.” The Syrians referred to themselves as S/Ys (from the word “Syrian” and pronounced by saying the letter S and the letter Y distinctly). This practice continues to this day. The differences between these two Jewish cultures have served to keep them apart, reinforcing their unique cultural, social, and culinary identities.

Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Jews have been fleeing Syria, concerned for their safety because of religious persecution. The hostile environment forbids Jews from speaking Hebrew as an everyday language; Jews may only use Hebrew in prayer. Jewish citizens wishing to depart Syria must be willing to leave all of their valuables behind. Traveling directly to Israel is prohibited; if they wish to go to Israel, travelers must exit via Jordan or some other roundabout way. When asked if there is a sadness or nostalgia about leaving the Old Country of their childhood, most displaced Syrian Jews will openly respond, “Why? Our life is much better here,” and the conversation comes to an end. Because of Syria’s politics, economy, and recent history, the Jews were more than happy to leave and not look back. In 1978, President Hafez El Assad permitted thirteen Syrian Jewish women to marry by proxy thirteen Syrian Jewish men in Brooklyn. The women were then allowed to enter the United States and become citizens. In 1992, Assad, hoping to score political points, allowed two thousand additional Syrian Jews to migrate to America. Today, Syria barely tolerates the hundred Jews left.