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Feeding the Need

The Syrian Jewish community in Deal, New Jersey, rises to the challenges of the pandemic—with delicious results

by
Esther Levy-Chehebar
October 12, 2020
Original photo courtesy Lydia Cohen
Original photo courtesy Lydia Cohen
Original photo courtesy Lydia Cohen
Original photo courtesy Lydia Cohen

If you’re in the market for homemade sourdough, I’ve got a friend. Does caffeine make you jumpy—matcha more your game? Because I know a girl who will hand-deliver some ceremonial-grade concentrate right to your doorstep. Also, my neighbor has been churning out batches of fresh ice cream since early April, strawberry shortcake and Ferrero Rocher and vanilla with chunky bits of homemade brownies wedged into every bite. If you’re feeling extra bad, my husband’s first cousin’s wife sells the most incredible homespun spaghetti by the pound. She offers a chickpea version, too, because gluten.

Do you miss having plans you wish you could cancel? Eating food that tastes good only because you didn’t make it? Craft cocktails? Allow me to recommend three private caterers who will host a socially distanced dinner party in your home. I give you the option of farm-to-table, comfort food, or kosher-style omakase. I’ll hook you up with an event planner; she’ll take care of seating, flatware, flowers, so that you could focus on getting sufficiently hammered. Just be prepared for when that inevitable urge to stick your unwashed fingers into a communal bowl of salted nuts hits you and snack safely with some individually bagged wasabi peas, courtesy of local Instagram business Easy Entertaining.

Welcome to Deal, New Jersey, where the entrepreneurial spirit of its residing Syrian Jewish community has met the moment, and then some, during the pandemic.

In early April, I was busy rationing toilet paper by the sheet and calling chickpeas “beige ballies” in the hopes that my 2-year-old wouldn’t notice that he was eating them for the third time that week, because damn it did I buy a lot of canned beans. But many of my friends, neighbors, and fellow community members were thinking of ways that they could grow their businesses in a peak-COVID climate.

The Syrian community has been incubating a robust culinary industry for years. Following in the tradition of our ancestors, many of whom immigrated to Brooklyn in the mid-20th century, its members have largely imbued a pioneering credo that essentially says: If you have a need that isn’t being met by an existing establishment, build new establishments. Over the course of three generations, this credo has spawned dozens of Sephardic synagogues, yeshivas, and charity organizations. However, its presence can arguably be felt most in the business culture surrounding food. I’ve written before about the ambitious efforts, often led by women in the community, to sell uniquely Sephardic food. From traditional mazza items like sambusaks and kibbe, to more carefully honed delicacies like knafeh and string cheese, if you crave it, chances are there’s someone who sells it, usually out of her own kitchen. However, COVID-related restrictions over food and socialization have upped the ante, and the Syrian community has risen to the challenge. The proof is in Deal.

Esther Haddad had some extra time on her hands when her college classes went virtual. Restrictions on outdoor gatherings in New Jersey had just began to ease up, so she invited a few friends to hang out in her backyard. In an effort to reduce germ spread, she served packaged Gushers, Fruit by the Foot, “and whatever else I could find.” She quickly realized that candy didn’t exactly scream suffeh, the Arabic word commonly used to describe the essence of orderliness and hospitality in Syrian homes. So she went out and bought small baggies and wooden and wicker baskets to hold them. She filled individual bags with snacks that would otherwise be dispersed around a home in glass bowls: dried fruits, nuts, ka’ak, and mini muffins. Soon after she displayed them she began to receive calls from people requesting customized baskets to serve at intimate shivas or card games. “From there,” she said, “it was a boomerang effect.” Someone would send a basket as a gift, the receiver would then call to send a basket to someone else. Today, she hand-delivers more than 20 baskets each week (her limit) and all orders must be in by Wednesday.

Similarly, Lydia Cohen was toiling away at online courses in mid-April when she suddenly got the urge to make ice cream. She’d spent previous summers operating a local candy shop with her sister, but as the likelihood of reopening decreased, she decided to purchase an ice cream maker off eBay. After a couple of weeks experimenting in her grandmother’s garage, she sent four pints to a friend as a gift: S’mores, Gooey Brownie, Mint Chip, Cookies and Cream. The reviews were in: “Better than Ben and Jerry’s.” Her brothers convinced her to buy an Italian machine and lent her their van for potential deliveries, a 1970s white Subaru with no air conditioning. “I learned two things in quarantine,” Cohen told me, “how to make ice cream and how to drive stick.” Her sister-in-law designed a colorful logo for the newly branded Cohen’s Creamery. Her grandfather thought she should package the goods in glass Mason jars. Her father suggested Uline for reusable and recyclable containers with screw-on lids. As the story goes, word got out. By the time she started taking orders in June, she received 32 requests for a total of 60 pints. That number doubled in a matter of weeks. She enjoyed a steady base of regulars. “I had the codes to people’s Shabbat locks,” she said with a laugh, “and I’d go fill their freezers.”

Although Cohen describes her foray into ice cream as a “corona fling,” others I’ve spoken to have made permanent changes to their business models. Paulina Ashkenazi, Susan Harari, and Teddy Khafif dabble in farm-to-table, healthy comfort food, and kosher sushi, respectively. And they all have but one thing in common: None imagined they’d be fully immersed in the private catering business by summer’s end. Ashkenazi and Harari spent much of their time teaching cooking classes at community centers and private homes before the pandemic. Both boast popular Instagram accounts and enjoyed the camaraderie and social interaction involved when cooking with company. Ashkenazi, who is widely known by her Instagram handle @Holykale, carved out a niche among hundreds of community cooks, offering classes and recipes focused on sustainability and local, seasonal produce. “It’s a style not so popular in the community, even though we are so food centric,” she said. However, even the Syrians have proven susceptible to the hokey charms of Sill Gardens and sourdough babies. When a friend requested a backyard dinner party, Ashkenazi agreed, so long as she could exercise complete control over the menu (again, we’re a community of cooks) with her partner, Sarina Setton.

Khafif was met with a similar request for a private dinner at the start of June. When his plans to open the city’s first kosher-omakase restaurant, Akimori, in the Financial District fell through, he contemplated leaving the restaurant industry entirely. Instead, he agreed to do the dinner: “I ran to Lowe’s and Home Depot to stock up on supplies needed to transport the fish and ingredients safely from Brooklyn to Deal.” He secured tableware, cutlery, and glassware. He had them dipped and secured kosher supervision. His original team consisted of a manager and one chef. But by the first dinner’s end, the little birdies had flown the metaphorical nest, setting off a tsunami of interest. Khafif, who previously worked as chef de partie at Masa, answered the call, phoning chefs and front house staff he previously worked with. “I still want to open a restaurant one day,” Khafif said. But he’s kept busy for now, hosting as many as three dinners per night. Still, catering to the community is not free of its challenges. “You’re essentially hosting a dinner for someone else,” Khafif said. “And hosting is the lifeblood of this community, so people are very precise about food and logistics.”

Enter 18-year-old Adina Akaad, of @Petite_Blossoms. Aside from regularly hosting friends and family for celebrations in her home, Akaad had no prior professional experience in event planning. “I created an Instagram page to act as a personal portfolio, which led to a few people reaching out for help planning lunches or gatherings,” she said. COVID-19 halted whatever momentum she had been building, until the air began to clear a bit and someone requested her help planning an intimate bar mitzvah. While a 40-person breakfast is small by typical Syrian standards, it was the biggest project Akaad had ever worked on. “A new form of celebrating was created and I had the opportunity to take part in events I normally wouldn’t have,” she said. The bustling, outsized hall parties were no longer, and Akaad carved out a niche putting together small yet creative home gatherings. She contracted community florists, printers, and supply rental companies—all of whom have enjoyed an uptick in work this summer due to people opting to dine in versus out.

There are dozens of new businesses—typically operating via Instagram—that have sprung up during the pandemic, offering everything from brick-oven pizza to raw Twix, to a fire pit around which to enjoy them. Deal’s new food industry minted by the virus is best realized when the talents of the men and women responsible for its rise are combined. For example: Create a dinner with an individual-sized challah roll (@twistchalla) beside a printed name card (@jadecreate) above a rented vintage table setting (@collectedbybeth) topped with a starter mezze (@claudiaathome) surrounded by bursting bud vases (@salliemishaan) curated responsibly (@mtevents.co) with portioned tiramisu (@from_ninaskitchen) to finish—and you didn’t make a single phone call out of your ZIP code. It’s Martha Stewart’s vision for kibbutz living fully imagined. “Our mothers and grandmothers learned how to properly hollow out squash and make challah because they had to,” Ashkenazi said. “It was more of a survivalist mentality back then.” During lockdown, many of us were fortunate enough to be able to return to our kitchens and rediscover the joy of cooking and experimentation. Coupled with the intense desire for social cohesion, a new commerce bubble has risen.

Esther Levy-Chehebar is a Brooklyn-based writer. She is currently at work on a novel loosely inspired by her Syrian Jewish upbringing.