I recently attended a very interesting lecture at Netanya’s Laniado Hospital. The venue for the lecture may give you an erroneous impression: it had nothing to do with disease; on the contrary, it had much to do with the delights of good health. It was a lecture by an exceptional cook combined with a cooking demonstration and tasting party of delectable dishes produced in the Syrian-Jewish kitchen. It took place in the Cooking Demonstration Room of Laniado and the entrance fee went to the benefit of the hospital.
Mrs. Poopa Dweck, the cook-lecturer, a chic, charming woman, is the author of a monumental, beautifully illustrated cookbook, Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews. Herself a scion of a Jewish family from Aleppo, Poopa Dweck is deeply immersed in the traditions of the Aleppian Jewish community. The core of these traditions, in her words, is the food, the various cooked and baked delicacies that express not only the essence but also the deep religious and historic associations of this Jewish society’s soul.
Countless numbers of recipes reflect deeply held beliefs. For instance, the 12 small loaves of pitta called “khubz” that the Aleppian housewife prepares for the Friday evening meal symbolize the 12 loaves of showbread, or lehem panim, that were placed on the Table in the Holy Temple to represent the Divine Presence. A dish called slihat, containing almonds − symbol of fertility − was cooked expressly for a woman after delivery.
Aromas of Aleppo is not merely a cookbook; it is a delightful journey in a slice of Jewish history. It tells of Jewish presence in Aleppo as early as 6th century B.C.E, to be supplanted by a large influx of Jews from Spain in the years following their expulsion in 1492. Aleppo became the center of silk and spice trade and the “gem of Arabian cooking.” More than other Jewish communities in the Middle East, the Jews of Aleppo integrated Arab cuisine with certain adjustments for the laws of kashrut.
“This book is a reflection of the women who have really been the main reason we have defied assimilation,” says Poopa Dweck. A firm believer in women’s power through maintaining a traditional Jewish home in which the kitchen plays a central role, Poopa and her friends began collecting these time-honored recipes more than 30 years ago. Out of concern that these were retained only in the memory of older cooks, and would one day be lost, the women started the project of recipe compilation in a red vinyl binder called “Deal Delights” after their New Jersey domicile. The collection was later self-published in two volumes under the above title.
Poopa was born Joyce Kattan in Italy where her parents decided to settle when, on honeymoon in 1947, the U.N. vote (on Nov. 29) to establish the Jewish State in Palestine engendered bloody attacks on Jews in Aleppo. The name Poopa, “doll” in Italian, originated with her Italian nanny and was transplanted to Brooklyn, N.Y. where she grew up. At 18 she married Sam Dweck, a fellow Aleppian with whom she moved to Deal, N.J. − the home of a large concentration of Jews from Aleppo − to raise their six children.
When in 2003 tragedy struck – the Dwecks’ 18-year-old son Jesse was killed – Poopa, a woman of great faith, derived a blessing from her bereavement. She founded the Jesse Dweck City Learning Center in Manhattan where young men of Jesse’s age learn Torah in his memory.
A computer whiz, Jesse had helped Poopa organize her research for the book, so she elected to dedicate Aromas of Aleppo to his memory, and bequeath all proceeds from the cookbook to the Jesse Dweck City Learning Center. A highly active community leader, Poopa also founded Daughters of Sarah and is the cofounder of the Sephardic Women’s Organization.
By her own admission, Mrs. Poopa Dweck is a devoted cook of traditional Jewish food because she is a devoted mother and grandmother, and passing these on is the secret of her design – to pass Judaism on to future generations.