‘Food: a fabric of our lives’

‘Food: a fabric of our lives’

NJ chef to bring rich flavor of Syrian-Jewish culture to Y

Cookbook author Poopa Dweck
Cookbook author Poopa Dweck

The Jews of Syria may have scattered to many countries around the world, but Poopa Dweck is determined to keep its descendants connected — through food.

Dweck, a longtime resident of Deal, will share recipes and stories from her cookbook, Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, at the third annual Queen Esther Tea on Sunday, March 13, at 9:30 a.m. at the YM-YWHA of Union County. The program is sponsored by Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.

In an interview with NJ Jewish News, Dweck said she loves to spread the joy of cooking through lectures, classes, and demonstrations around the world.

“I really get deep into the history,” she said. “I felt it was important because the next generations were losing the understanding of where we came from and where our religious practices came from and why we adhere to everything so strongly.”

Dweck said she felt it was an “emergency” that she publish her book. “I wanted my grandchildren and, God willing, my great-grandchildren to really understand and perpetuate all our customs and our recipes, and I knew it had to be put in an enticing format.”

The book is amply illustrated with enticing depictions of the dishes; the recipes are easy to follow, Dweck said, because she wanted her readers “to not feel intimidated.”

“Food is a great vehicle because it keeps us connected and it does help us perpetuate our religious practices because any holiday — whether it’s Shabbat or Passover or a life-cycle event — there’s always food involved, so women have played a tremendous part in keeping this phenomenon.”

One of the treats Dweck will bring to the March 13 event is ma’amoul, a traditional nut-stuffed pastry that she said is a Purim staple.

“The definition of ma’amoul in Arabic is ‘filled,’” said Dweck. “It is a small and rounded pastry made with small imprinted molds called tabe’. Each mold shape indicates a different type of filling. A flat-topped mold usually means a date filling, while a pointy top usually means some kind of nut filling. When the ma’amoul are baked, the imprinted design is more prominent and very beautiful.” Dweck will bring to the Y some of the antique wooden ma’amoul molds she found during a book tour to Beijing.

Despite their geographic dispersion — to such locations as Panama, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Great Britain, and France, as well as the United States (including Dweck’s own sizable community in Deal) — the Syrian Jews maintain close ties and still prepare the traditional foods and adhere to their distinct religious practices. Dweck considers herself an ambassador for Syrian-Jewish culture and thinks it’s important for every ethnic group to study its heritage.

“My goal is to inspire others to re-visit their unique roots and celebrate the concept of family,” said Dweck. She recalled a book tour to Bogota, Colombia, where a journalist asked her why her culture of cuisine was so worthy of perpetuation. Dweck told her about the community’s ancient history and culture and “the importance of food as a fabric of our lives.”

“But then I said she should call her grandmother and ask her why the Colombian heritage and tradition was so special and to try her recipes and document their connections to their culture and events. She cried like a baby, realizing she also has a unique cuisine and legacy to bring to her family and strengthen the world with her own culture.”

Women’s Philanthropy, said organizer Shari Bloomberg of Elizabeth, “is the one central place for everybody to be united, regardless of their age or religious affiliation.” The Queen Esther Tea, she added, is being held at the Union Y in particular to draw women from the entire community, including Elizabeth/Hillside. Bloomberg, who is working with a committee of nine women from those towns, said, “We’re looking forward to an exciting morning and expecting a wonderful turnout.”

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