NEW YORK (JTA) — Although Poopa Dweck has never been to Aleppo, her New Jersey home evokes the smells of a kitchen in the now-ravaged Syrian city.
Dweck was born after her parents left the once-bustling metropolis in 1947, but she still calls it her “homeland.” She has dedicated herself to maintaining and teaching the recipes of the Syrian Jewish community, authoring the cookbook “Aromas of Aleppo.”
And she has straightforward advice for the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled the Aleppo as the Syrian government and its allies have bombed the city in recent weeks, creating horrific scenes of destruction: Keep your traditions and don’t give up hope.
“The Jewish community that is dispersed throughout the world is a good example for these descendants right now … understanding their history and hanging on to their traditions and rituals and belief systems,” she said, referring to displaced Aleppines. “If they actually had to leave their homeland, it doesn’t mean their identity is compromised.”
For decades, the Syrian Jewish diaspora has steadfastly maintained its traditions. Spread among New York, Israel and a handful of other places, Syrian Jews have gained a reputation for holding fast to their foods, rituals and prayers, as well as living near one another and encouraging their children to marry within the community.
The Jewish presence in Aleppo, according to tradition, dates back to the time of King David, who conquered the area. Syrian Jews began immigrating to America near the turn of the 20th century. In 1948, when Syria declared war on the nascent State of Israel, there were some 40,000 Jews in the country, most of whom left over the years.
Until the current civil war began in 2011, Syria had let small waves of Jews emigrate, while others left illegally. A clandestine rescue operation brought a Jewish family to Israel from Aleppo last year, and only a few Jews remain in the country.
While much of the 75,000-member American Syrian Jewish community departed the country decades ago, Dweck said they still feel pain watching its destruction.
“It is heartbreaking to see what is happening to the men, women and children in that part of the world,” she said. “I’m totally devastated by it, the destruction of a beautiful part of the world.”
Today, the core of the Syrian Jewish community is in Israel, Brooklyn and New Jersey. Dweck lives in Deal, a Shore hamlet with a large population of Syrian Jews.
In Brooklyn’s Gravesend neighborhood, a Syrian mega-synagogue called Shaare Zion hosts a dozen morning prayer services daily. The community has remained cohesive due, in part, to an 80-year-old edict from its rabbis forbidding Syrian Jews from marrying Jewish converts.
Dweck’s parents left Syria on their honeymoon in 1947, right before the United Nations approved the plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, sparking unrest and attacks on Jews across the Arab world. The couple never returned home, settling in Italy for three years before moving to the United States.
“We’re all dispersed, but we’re all from one family,” said Dweck of cousins in Latin America and Europe. “The children see our values and how we live, and what our priorities are, and how we continue our heritage.”
For Dweck, communal continuity expresses itself through cooking. On Thursday, she rattled off a list of foods associated with the Jewish calendar, from atayef — fried pancakes filled with ricotta served on Hanukkah — to Passover’s helou hindi, or candied coconut. When a baby gets its first tooth, as Dweck’s grandchild did recently, Syrian Jews give the child sliha, a dessert with whole wheat grains and mixed nuts.
Dweck says that when her mother would reminisce about Aleppo, she would recall the city’s markets, stacked with rich produce, as well as healthy chickens and eggs.
“We really haven’t veered,” she said. “Any place in the world, whether it’s Geneva or Panama or Brazil or London, you’ll go to a descendant of the Syrian community and you’ll sit at their Shabbat table and the food will be exactly the same.”
Dweck hopes that the refugees streaming out of Aleppo now can also preserve their own recipes and folkways. Despite nearly 70 years of hostility between Syria and Israel, Dweck said her parents had only fond memories of their neighbors, who would bring sweets to Jewish families to celebrate the end of Passover.
Decades later, Dweck says she still feels a connection to Aleppo’s embattled residents.
“We lived in tolerance,” she said. “We’re devastated for the homeland itself because that’s where we came from. We don’t want to see it destroyed.”