Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews - A ReviewCategory: Literature Issue No. 146
Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews
By Poopa Dweck
Harper Collins. Hardcover, 388 pages, $49.95, NIS 198
Reviewed by Carl Hoffman
Joab Ben Zeruiah was the commander-in-chief of the army of King David. When he conquered the city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria, Joab built a tower and fortress, left soldiers behind to stand guard, and thus established a Jewish presence in the city that has survived almost to the present day. While that story may be no more than legend, unassailable historical evidence shows that Jews were comfortably ensconced there during Seleucid rule in Syria, the same time as the second temple in Jerusalem. Like all Syrian Jewish communities, the Aleppo Jews sat at the center of a broad arc of Jewish settlement, stretching upward from Israel, through Syria, and east to Mesopotamia and Persia. Aleppo became an important conduit of regional trade, as hundreds of camel and donkey caravans passed back and forth through the city each year on their way east or west. During the centuries that followed, the community became rich through trade, respected for their piety and envied for their learning. Blessed by centuries of peace and prosperity, Jews came to feel more ‘at home’ in Aleppo than they have felt anywhere outside of Israel. And today, throughout their diaspora – caused, of course, by the post-1948 persecution of Jews in Syria – they still think of themselves as “Aleppo Jews”. They may live in Brooklyn; New York, Deal, New Jersey or Tel Aviv, Israel, but their hearts are in Aleppo, which many still call their “homeland”.
I had occasion to observe up close and personal a small fragment of this community during my years as a member of the Jewish community of the Philippines. After World War II, Syrian Jews from Aleppo came to comprise the backbone of the community, and eventually its head and heart as well. Wealthy owners or managers of clothing factories in Manila, the Aleppo Jews were a community within a community, tightknit and difficult to penetrate. In an already orthodox community, they were ostentatiously more orthodox. Among the mostly Sephardi synagogue members, they were somehow more Sephardic. And, within an already insular Jewish community living in the midst of some 68 million Filipino Catholics, they were even more insular. They had customs that none of us had ever seen, sang prayers with melodies that we had never heard, and ate foods and cooked dishes that even the most jaded among us had to say were magnificent. As a Jew, I thought they were inspiring. As an anthropologist, I found them fascinating.
I wondered then, as I wonder now, just what it is that gives these people their distinctiveness and cohesiveness. How have they held on to so many of their traditions, while Jews from so many other places have lost theirs? But mostly, I wonder how they’ve continued to see their distinctive culture as something worth keeping, something worth holding on to. How have they so proudly remained “Aleppo Jews”, when so few, if any of them, have ever set foot in Aleppo even once in their lives?
“It’s the women and the food!” declares Poopa Dweck, author and expert on Aleppo Jewish cooking and culture. “For centuries, back in Aleppo and now in Brooklyn or Geneva or South America, wherever we have come to live, it’s been the women who have been keeping it all together. On holidays or any life cycle event, they’re the ones who make all the wonderful food and call everyone together to sit and eat. Old and young get together and the traditions get passed down. It’s the women who preserve the traditions and keep the community together.”
We caught up with Poopa during the last week of June, in the midst of a whirlwind tour of the country to promote her new book, Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, winner of the National Jewish Book Award in the United States. She brought her love of Aleppo, pungent Brooklyn accent and unfailing smile to the Aleppo Jews Heritage Center at 4 Aaronson Street in Tel Aviv where she met with the Center’s directors, compared notes with them on ways to preserve Aleppo culture and donated a copy of her book to the Center’s library. Over coffee and Syrian Jewish-style cookies, the author expressed her excitement about the book’s reception in Turkey, her previous stop before arriving in Israel. She said she had encountered people in Istanbul who told her that Aromas of Aleppo could serve as a good talking point between Syrian Jews and Muslims – “because so much of the food and folk culture is similar” – as well as a Syrian Muslim who looked at the book and said, “This food is our food too. These are things I grew up with.” Poopa explained that this similarity had a lot to do with the manner in which Jews had settled in Syria throughout the centuries:” Unlike Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain and settled in Turkey and who continued to feel Spanish and speak Ladino, Jews coming to Syria quickly took the customs of the country and spoke Arabic.”
To refer to Aromas of Aleppo as merely a cookbook is like calling Cunard’s gigantic Queen Marry II cruise ship simply a “boat”. Aside from the fact that virtually all of the recipes begin with a brief description of the role each dish plays in Aleppo Jewish culture, each section – Small Delights; Legumes, Vegetables and Soups; Rice, Grains and Pasta; Meat; Poultry and Fish; Dairy and Eggs; Sweets and Beverages – begins with a remarkably informative essay about how the geography and history of Aleppo affected its cuisine, and even ethnographic observations about markets, shopping and unusual cooking customs. There are, in addition, concise but informative chapters on the Jews of Aleppo; kashrut; Shabbat, holidays and life cycle events, as well as glossaries and a bibliography. The recipes are presented in a simple, straightforward manner. I could follow them if I ever attempted to cook.
The book is beautifully produced, nicely printed on good quality paper, with numerous superb full-page photographs. Although Aromas of Aleppo is, in fact, a cookbook and is intended to be used as one, it looks much more at home gracing a parlor coffee table than standing on a kitchen shelf, indecorously learning against a stained old copy of Joy of Cooking.
Poopa Dweck believes that her book will serve as a means to bring regional Jews and Muslims together to talk about how much history and tradition they share in common. I believe that Aromas of Aleppo will fulfill another need as well. Every summer at the beginning of the 20th century, American anthropologists would leave their university classrooms and museum exhibit halls ad head west to spend their vacations with the many tribes of American Indians. They would then go about observing, noting, recording, drawing and photographing everything they saw and heard, from war chants to lullabies, rain dances to horseback riding games, childbirths to burials, as well as customs surrounding hunting, herding, gardening and fishing. Seemingly, everywhere at once, these old-time anthropologists spent the blisteringly hot days of summer looking at everything – right on down to what kind of animal fat people were using to dress their hair. Quaint as their activities seem now, these men and women knew precisely what they were doing. Indian cultures were vanishing. Whole tribes were dying out, and the customs of those that remained were fading away as fast as prairie snow melts in the first warm days of spring. These old-time anthropologists knew that if they didn’t document everything that still existed, no one would remember it later. Accordingly, they often wrote enormous tomes on specific Indian tribes, describing in almost excruciating detail every dance, every moccasin, every tomahawk they had seen. More importantly, some of these experts even recorded the tribal languages, many of which are today extinct. Today, those books are often the only record of those tribes that exist. Many are even consulted by contemporary members of those tribes who want to learn about their old tribal language and culture, and have no other source.
Poopa Dweck is to be congratulated for performing a similar service. She has recorded – attractively and in great detail – aspects of Aleppo Jewish manners and customs, documenting a culture that is still full, rich and very much alive. If the culture of Aleppo Jews remains as vibrant as it is today, at least a small part of that success will no doubt be due to this big fascinating book.
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