Sweets of tolerance

By Carla Haibi

On Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, between eateries fragrant with Middle Eastern scents, stands a small pastry store that’s been open since 1992: Sweet Arayssi. Rima Arayssi, 43, is the fifth generation of a family of Muslim confectioners operating since 1844 in Lebanon. Her achievement goes beyond the family business to transforming the store into an oasis of coexistence for customers with a long history of religious and political tensions. She has continued to keep her bakery kosher, as her father did, to cater to Lebanese Jews and other Arab Jews residing in Brooklyn.

Most days, Lebanese Muslims, Christians and Jews meet at her store and find comfort in what they undeniably share, a longing for the sweet taste that reminds them of their shared cultural identity and home country thousands of miles away.

Outside the shop, small Lebanese flags adorn the front door. Inside, a wafting aroma of ghee, or clarified butter – a key ingredient in the sweets – creates a warm ambiance. Freshly made varieties of flaky baklavas with a shimmering glaze of syrup sit in large pans on one counter. On another sits a display of butter cookies, saffron with pine nut cakes and coconut with sesame seed pastries, among other Middle Eastern delicacies.

“Ahlan!” (meaning welcome), yells Arayssi in Arabic from the back kitchen.

This cool morning in spring, she stands in front of the stove, rotating a heavy platter of kneffe, a Middle Eastern breakfast made with semolina rubbed with ghee, flour and sugar topped with a thick layer of cheese and cooked until the semolina crust turns golden brown. Served fresh daily in a sesame bun drizzled with sugar syrup, the popular item is both organic and kosher, just like the rest of her products.

When Arayssi started handling the operation of her dad’s store in 1996, she was introduced to Jewish culture. Growing up in Lebanon, she had rarely heard of this community. She was a child when Jews started leaving the country in the 1960s. Yet, she remembered stories of her grandmother who used to go to her Jewish neighbours’ house where they would turn off their lights for Shabbat, the weekly Jewish day of rest. Arayssi heard stories of coexistence and tolerance among all Lebanese during her parents’ and her grandparents’ youth, but she has not seen it in hers, and has definitely not seen it in recent years.

Tolerance and coexistence are terms that Arayssi lives by every day. Born into the Muslim faith, she and her sisters went to a Jesuit school in Lebanon, just like her father and her grandfather who were baptised Christian. Her mother is an observant Muslim who prays five times a day. Arayssi married a Lebanese Christian and plans to raise her four-year-old daughter in a spirit of coexistence. “I want her to understand that all people are the same,” she says. “God is one, but we each take a different way to get to Him.”

Considering the high demand for the distinctive flavour of her sweets by the Jewish community in Brooklyn, she carried on her father’s decision to get a kosher certification and cater to this portion of her clientele.

She learned the principles of the Kashrus, the set of Jewish dietary laws, and changed the operation of her store to qualify for the kosher certification. She had to make hard decisions in the process. She chose to only make sweets at her bakery and to stop preparing certain Lebanese foods that were in demand but which contained meat. According to the Kashrus, meat-containing products cannot be prepared in the same kitchen in which dairy products are used. So Arayssi decided to stick to making kosher pastries.

Arayssi sometimes feels that her role is delicate, especially in trying to divert politically charged conversations, a complicated task when the situation in Lebanon is not stable. “Lebanese can easily argue with each other and are very politically biased,” she said, adding that “this shop is not the place to talk about politics.” In fact, she turned off the television in the store because Lebanese news broadcasts created tensions.

Instead, she prefers to oblige her customers’ feelings of nostalgia, those who have been in the United States for a long time, by telling them stories about Lebanon and speaking in Arabic. “Some come here to practice the language,” she said. “Others tell me, ‘This is the smell of Lebanon’ when they come into the store.”


* Carla Haibi is a Lebanese freelance journalist and blogger (outoflebanon.wordpress.com). This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at outoflebanon.wordpress.com.