Stumbling into Syrian cuisine while searching for a Soviet-Russian seder tradition
It starts, as these things so often do, with food. My (non-Jewish) partner and I, recently reunited after a short separation, in the sad bachelor apartment where he had temporarily landed. Where familiar, lonely kitchen things still glared at me woefully, bereft of their mates that had landed up in my kitchen. Where we bumped into each other, all corners and angles and elbows still rusty and hesitant. And where, now, very suddenly, Seder night was upon us…
Passover was the first major Jewish holiday I tackled myself. I don’t remember what we used for our Haggadah that year, but I do remember panicking over the menu. The Haggadah is the ultimate instruction manual and Seder literally translates into Order. Every element of the evening was scripted centuries ago — how to arrange the Seder plate, how many glasses of wine to drink, when to serve dinner, when to open the door, when to eat the charoset and what to dip into our salt water. But the main course is reduced to no more than a single line: Shulchan Oruch. Dinner is served.
There aren’t any Russian babushkas — metaphorical or literal — tut-tutting me over the proper way to do anything. At most, and for only a very few Soviet Jews, Passover began and ended with matzo — an illegal, stealth affair that took place in basements and hidden kitchens, not unlike the Marranos lighting their Shabbat candles in the basements of Spain. For everyone else, it had long vanished from their conscience. But in the general freshness, and awkwardness, of it all, was the wide open space for something new — something ours. So, like any good “rootless cosmopolitan,” our Seder menus have taken us around the world, beginning, that evening, with Syria.
We magicked up a dinner of roasted lamb shanks from a new cookbook that had recently come our way, Aromas of Aleppo, by Poopa Dweck. A first-generation Syrian-Jewish American, Dweck has captured the stories and recipes of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, in one of the world’s oldest, and tragically now much-destroyed, cities.
In the years since, we’ve picked and chosen our Seder menu from Israel, Iraq/Persia, Greece, Italy. I have yet to recall a single roasted chicken or a brisket, though I’m a stickler for my boxed Matzah ball mix and my jarred gefilte fish (it’s an acquired — very acquired — taste). I don’t know how to “do Jewish” properly, in the North American-Ashkenazi way. There are no Soviet seder foods to call upon, and the long-Americanized Tsarist-era traditions were meaningless.
I couldn’t have predicted the symbolism that particular choice of cuisine would take on in the years to come, or that Dweck’s book would become a cookbook of refugees itself. That it is Refugee Rights Day in Canada on April 4, just a week before Passover, seems particularly poignant following a year when the world heaved and threw up a series of increasingly closed doors to the most vulnerable and frightened among humanity. The news out of Syria about the recent chemical attack— it’s beyond words.
I no longer panic about our Seder menu, but I do worry about making it relevant to our kids, without making it so relevant that they stop sleeping at night. This year, as we talk about slaves and freedoms and escapes — as we remind our children that the story of Passover quite literally took place for their own family, and of the Matzo of Hope once set out on behalf of their grandparents and mother — Syria will be top of mind. And, as we embrace our many freedoms, we’ll be cooking from Dweck’s book again. Having no food traditions to call my own has suddenly become liberating— something I can use, I hope, to explain to my children the connection between history and freedom and the world they’re growing up in.
*If you’re in Toronto, check out the Newcomer Kitchen, which has given local Syrian refugees a space to cook and come together and sustain their families.
From: Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, by Poopa Dweck
Makes 6-8 servings
- 6 lbs lamb shanks
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 6 garlic cloves, minced (approx 1 tbsp)
- 4 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp Aleppo pepper, or 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp ground allspice
- 3 ribs celery
- Put the lamb in a large stockpot, add 2 quarts water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 30 minutes, uncovered, periodically skimming the surface of the cooking liquid.
- Preheat the oven to 375F.
- Transfer the lamb to a platter. Combine the vegetable oil, garlic, salt, Aleppo pepper, paprika, and allspice in a small dish and rub the mixture all over the lamb.
- Put the celery ribs on a rack in a shallow roasting pan and lay the shank on top. Roast, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until tender. Discard the celery before serving.