excerpt from Dream Homes

by Joyce Zonana 


from Chapter Two - Chez Les Arabes

We ate well in our Brooklyn home, but we ate differently. Our neighbors were Irish, Italian, and Jewish. But the Jews were Ashkenazy, Eastern Europeans with ancestors from Russia and Poland and Germany or Austria-Hungary--nothing like our Mediterranean tribe. With the exception of my father’s cousin Sheila, who arrived from Cairo with her family in 1960, there was no one else in all of Shore Haven (and it was a huge housing complex, with some twenty buildings, each six stories high, eight apartments to a floor) who ate as we did. I savored the complex aromas of marinara sauce for meatballs and spaghetti served by the Italian families who lived above and beside and below us, and I longed to eat as they did, but I was not puzzled by the differences in our foodways. We were Egyptian and Jewish. They were Italian and Catholic. That explained things. But what about the other Jews? I had difficulty understanding our culinary divergence. And for them it was even more difficult.

"You mean you’re Jewish? And you don’t know about gefulte fish?” 

This from my best friend Debbie’s mother, who, on Friday nights, cooked chicken soup, kugel, kishke, latkes--a tempting array of textures, colors, and scents. I begged permission to visit the Saltz’s apartment, just across the courtyard from ours, so that I might enjoy the pleasures of their Sabbath kitchen. The Saltzes kept kosher; they had separate plates for meat and dairy, as well as a special set of glass dishes for Passover. Debbie taught me to distinguish among the sets, warning me never to put dairy on a meat dish. And she explained, to my puzzlement, that fish could be either dairy or meat. All the Jews in the neighborhood kept kosher, it seemed, except for us. When I asked my mother why we didn’t, she said it wasn’t important, “What difference does it make?” But I knew the difference it made. Real Jews kept kosher--that was how one could tell they were Jewish. Much as I enjoyed our tabbouleh and hamoud, I believed that if we were really Jewish, we would be eating stuffed cabbage, not stuffed grape leaves. I wanted to stand in line at the corner deli with everyone else on Sunday mornings, to take my number in the busy store loud with good-natured kibbutzing, to order bagels, cream cheese, lox, whitefish. Instead we had ful mudammas and tahina, served with a wilted salad in warm pita bread.

“What kind of a Jew are you?” a schoolmate would challenge during recess.

“Sephardic,” I would say, “I’m Sephardic.” Although I had no concept of the word’s meaning, I knew it was the right one. Our kind was Sephardic; the others were Ashkenazy. “We’re from Egypt,” I would assert boldly. 

“But all the Jews left Egypt a long time ago, isn’t that what Passover is about?”

“No,” I would say, having been taught the words by my father. “Some Jews went back when they got kicked out of Spain. The Jews did very well in Egypt.”

“There are no Jews in Egypt,” my little friend would retort. “I never heard of any Jews in Egypt. You can’t be Jewish.”

It was puzzling, I knew, but I could find nothing further to say at this point. Aside from a handful of relatives, I didn’t know any other Jews from Egypt either. An Egyptian Jew. To my neighbors, it seemed an exotic contradiction in terms. To me as well. What was the Egyptian part, what the Jewish? How did they fit together? Maybe I wasn’t really Jewish.

“Egyptian, wow. I never met an Egyptian before. Does that mean you’re related to Cleopatra?” 

That was another question. Was I? It didn’t seem likely. But in what way was I Egyptian, then? I knew nothing about Egypt or Egyptians, except for the occasional anecdote my parents let slip. I had been told that I was born in Cairo, that my mother took me to the Pyramids when I was an infant, that I learned to swim at Ras-al-Bar, a sand bar in the Nile delta.

“Did you live in a pyramid?”

“Did you ride a camel?”

“Did your mother wear a veil?"

The questions would come, faster and faster, and I could answer none of them. I was a mystery to myself, confused and ashamed. My parents told me I was both Egyptian and Jewish, but on those Brooklyn streets, I could be sure of neither. The two identities threatened to cancel each other; I feared I had no authentic claim to one or the other. Baffled, stymied, I retreated into our apartment, found my way to the kitchen, asked my mother for some halawah.