On the banks of the Quweiq River amid the dry plains of northwest Syria, the city of Aleppo has been home to a Jewish community for 3,000 years.
Aleppo, the second-largest city in Syria, has outlasted a long list of conquerors including the Amorites, Hittites, Romans, various Arab dynasties, Mongols, Mamelukes, Ottomans and French.
The city is known by many names: Haleb in Arabic, Alep in French, Beora by the Romans, though the Jews have always referred to it as Aram Soba - a name derived from Aram, son of Abraham's half-brother Soba.
According to the Book of Samuel and Psalms, Aram Soba was part of the extended area of Israel.
In her beautiful book Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, Poopa Dweck, a first-generation Syrian-Jewish American, describes the customs and traditions of the Jews of Aleppo. Though the book is primarily a cookbook, it also describes the community's history and customs.
The foundation for the Great Synagogue in Aleppo is believed to have been laid by King David's general, Joab ben Seruya (circa 950 BCE), after his conquest of the city. It is still sometimes referred to as Joab's Synagogue.
With the adoption of Christianity as their official religion, the Romans placed restrictions on Jews. These were lifted with the Arab conquest in 636, when Islamic caliphates began ruling the region. From the seventh century until the end of Ottoman rule, the Jewish community was self-governed. This entitled the Jews to freedom of religion, a separate court system and military protection.
With the arrival of Iraqi Jews fleeting the Persians during the eighth and 10th centuries, Aleppo's Jewish community began to grow.
For many years, the Jews lived comfortably under Muslim rule, secure in their place as dhimmi, a protected people. Living in a non-democratic state, both Jews and Muslims remained apolitical.
Aleppo was a hub of Jewish life for many centuries. Distinguished rabbis studied there, and it was a center of significant Torah learning. A document known as the Aleppo Codex is believed to have been written there by a member of the famous Ben-Asher family over 1,000 years ago. The text shows the final vocalization and punctuation of the biblical text. Some believe it is the biblical text Maimonides refers to in his Hilchot Sefer Torah.
Many of the Jews who had been expelled from Spain came to Aleppo, where they remained separate from the indigenous Jews. The Spanish Jews spoke Ladino, a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish, while the population spoke Arabic. Added to the mixture of native Syrians and Spanish Jews from Sepharad were Italian Jews, commonly referred to as "Francos."
It took several centuries, but eventually the two communities merged, and Ladino died out by the middle of the 18th century.
As the Middle East suffered economic depression, Jews of Aleppo and Damascus migrated to the United States in the early 20th century, and began looking for a better life. As the community grew, it established its own infrastructure including a cemetery, synagogues, religious schools, ritual baths and a community center. At the same time, the Syrian Jews became assimilated into society through dress, language and basic education. However, they continued to preserve their heritage, values and culture.
The kitchen is the soul of the Aleppian Jewish home, writes Dweck, and her book conveys the warmth and love of its cuisine.
Most Syrian recipes existed only in the minds of older cooks. Aromas of Aleppo presents 180 of them, each including a short history of the dish and an eye-catching photo. The book is Dweck's tribute to all the devoted women of her community.
Aleppian Jewish cuisine represents the essence of the Middle Eastern shuk, where grains, semolina and an array of fruits are central ingredients and offer an alternative to meat, which was expensive. It is also based on a variety of spices, most of which arrived from India and East Asia. While the cuisine is largely influenced by Turkish tastes, Aleppian cooks use spices and herbs far more liberally.
Among the mouthwatering recipes are some classic Syrian ones such as kibbeh nablesieh, torpedo-shaped bulgur shells filled with spiced ground beef; lubieh b'lahme, black-eyed peas with veal, eaten at Rosh Hashana as a symbol of wealth; and ataiyef, fried Syrian pancakes filled with ricotta cheese and topped with honey syrup, which was served on happy occasions such as engagement parties and holidays.
A chapter looks into the role that meat plays in the cuisine, while in the Dairy and Egg chapter one can learn how to make sambousak, a buttery cheese-filled sesame pastry which can be found in the freezer of almost every Aleppian Jewish household. A Syrian guidebook to holidays and life-cycle events at the end of the book tells about holiday customs, and ceremonies such as pidyon haben, bar mitzva, and the Jewish marriage festivities.