Sunday, June 16, 2013

My heart goes out to the city of Aleppo, Syria

Grilled whiting fillets at Aleppo Restaurant, whose owner is from the northern Syrian city that is reportedly bracing for an assault by government troops. After an early dinner at the Paterson restaurant on Saturday, we drove over to the Great Falls, which was swollen by recent heavy rains, below.
Paterson's Great Falls.

A photo I took in 1978 shows a Star of David motif on Bab Al Faraj, a clock tower in Aleppo, Syria.


News of a planned Syrian-government assault on rebel-held Aleppo flooded me with memories of my 1978 visit to the city where my Sephardic Jewish parents were born.

Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., I was constantly reminded of Aleppo -- from the Arabic records my mother played to the wonderful meals of Syrian specialties she prepared every day.

My parents, who spoke Syrian at home, often discussed Aleppo and such landmarks as Bab Al Faraj, a clock tower at one of the entrances to the old city.

Since the battle for Syria began more than 2 years ago, I've often wondered whether the clock tower and the other buildings I saw on my visit 35 years ago are still standing.

Now, my heart breaks at the thought of more death and destruction in Aleppo.

The city -- 186 miles north of Damascus -- was big in my parents' day. In 2005, it had a population of 2.3 million and was the largest city in Syria.

On Saturday, I planned a day of food shopping and sightseeing in and around Paterson, a city whose silk mills drew thousands of Syrian immigrants in the early 1900s.

Along with my wife and mother-in-law, I stopped for an early dinner at Aleppo Restaurant on Main Street, trying to recapture the flavors of my mother's dishes, as I have for the many years I've lived in northern New Jersey.

The food always brings me back to Brooklyn and to my brief visit to Aleppo, where the kebab restaurant cooks chopped meat with long, sharp knives, and the bakeries were filled with baklava and other familiar pastries. 

My mother's passport photo. She was about 12 when she arrived in the United States.

Aleppo and Brooklyn

My father, Abood Sasson, was the son of a pastry maker in Aleppo who worked in his father's bakery and, after he married, taught his wife how to make Syrian sweets. 

My mother, who took the name Grace after she came to the United States, said her mother came from Alexandria, Egypt.

Her father, Selim Ashkenazi, was a shochet, a person officially certified as competent to kill cattle, sheep and poultry in the manner prescribed by Jewish kosher laws.

I remember returning home from school one day and finding a live turkey in a cage in our finished basement in Brooklyn.

My grandfather killed that bird and my mother served it for Thanksgiving.

Abood Sasson and Grace Ashkenazi met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, married in the early 1930s and moved to Brooklyn. 

My father said the wedding, reception and a honeymoon voyage to Cuba on the Morro Castle cost about $400.

My father spent most of his working life running a dry goods store, A. Sasson, on Grand Street in Manhattan, competing against dozens of others who also sold sheets, pillowcases, curtains and lace tablecloths.

An appetizer of Muhammara, the spiciest dish on the menu at Aleppo Restaurant, is made with sweet red peppers and ground dried Aleppo peppers ($4).

Aleppo Mixed Grill, served with rice, salad or french fries ($15).

Another appetizer, Labaneh Extra, is a thick yogurt with ground walnuts and garlic ($5).

Three of the four fillets in the Grilled Whiting entree, which I ordered with salad ($10).The fish was dusted with the same delicious spices used for kebabs.

Arabic Salad is dressed with oil, lemon, parsley and dried mint ($4).

Service problems

On Saturday, as we were finishing up our meal at Aleppo Restaurant, I asked the waitress if Mohamed K. Jello, the genial chef and owner, could leave the kitchen for a few minutes so I could say hello and ask about family members in Syria.

Everyone in Aleppo was safe, Jello said before hurrying back to work.

The food we had eaten was as good as always, but I didn't have the heart to complain about the waitress, who seemed uninterested in serving us, even though only two other tables were occupied.

The restaurant has switched from a thin, chewy bread to a thicker pocket bread from Nouri's, a nearby bakery, and the waitress brought several loaves in the plastic bag, as is the custom in Middle Eastern places in Paterson.

But this bread didn't seem that fresh and hadn't been heated in the bag, as it is elsewhere, and on top of that, Nouri's isn't my favorite Syrian bakery.

I asked her to heat up the bread, and she refused, so I just handed her the tray and asked her to take the bread away.

There were other problems, and my smaller-than-usual tip reflected my dissatisfaction with the service.

A perfect way to end a Syrian meal is Turkish Coffee, but our waitress at Aleppo Restaurant didn't make it "mazboot" (medium sweet), as I requested.
Al Jeezera reported that Egypt had broken off diplomatic relations with Syria.
The restaurant has an old photo of the citadel in Aleppo,Syria. Aleppo is at 939 Main Street in Paterson; 1-973-977-2244. No alcohol allowed.

Aleppo then

My 1978 visit to Aleppo, Syria, lasted only 36 hours, but I remember sleeping in a hotel room shared by other travelers, and eating in a kebab restaurant where the chefs used long, sharp knives to chop meat.

In a pastry shop, I was able to order baklava and other sweets by name, because I grew up eating them.

I visited a yeshiva and a Jewish family in the Jameliah neighborhood, but found that both the citadel of Aleppo and the national museum were closed on the day I stopped by.

I flew to Syria from Egypt, where I had toured for about 3 weeks, and took a group taxi to Aleppo from Damascus.

Here are some of the photos I took on June 19, 20 and 21, 1978:

A man selling tea on the street.

The old city of Aleppo reminded me of old Jerusalem.

The Star of David motif on a door.

Parts of old Aleppo were being cleared to make way for new apartment buildings.

Fresh Syrian bread from an oven visible in the rear.

A World War II-era Citroen parked in the old city.
A man balances a tray on his head.

An entrance to the covered souk or market that Aleppo is known for.

A man and his sons offered old suits for sale.

The exterior, left, and interior of an ancient synagogue that had been restored with money from the Sephardic community in Brooklyn, N.Y.


  1. Great looking dish, I love the fillets

  2. Great photos Victor. It is a shame our government here in the US is supporting Al Qaeda backed mercenaries who have terrorized the citizens of Syria just as they terrorized our country on 9/11. I am hoping the Syrian Army cleanses Aleppo of them. I no longer patronize Aleppo Restaurant due to Mr. Jello's support for the so-called "rebels".

  3. I'm sorry it has come to that, Chuck.

  4. Excellent and very informative read. Thank you.

  5. I think I know which waitress you're referring to. She clearly does not want to be there.

  6. You have to go for the food, not the service.

  7. Such a wonderful post. Loved the story of your parents. Hope our Syria is as beautiful someday soon.


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