Jennifer Abadi lives in New York City and is a researcher, developer, and preserver of Sephardic and Judeo-Arabic recipes and food customs. A culinary expert in the Jewish communities of the Middle East, Mediterranean, Central Asia, and North Africa, she teaches cooking at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), the Jewish Community Center Manhattan (JCC), and Context Conversations at Context Travel. In addition to providing Jewish food and culture tours on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Jennifer works as a personal chef in the New York City area and offers private in-person and virtual cooking lessons. Her cookbook-memoir, “A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen” (now in its new and revised third edition) is a collection of recipes and stories from her family. Her second cookbook, “Too Good To Passover: Sephardic & Judeo-Arabic Seder Menus and Memories from Africa, Asia and Europe” provides an anthropological as well as historical context to the ways in which the Jewish communities of North Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean, and Middle East observe and enjoy this beloved ancient festival.


Growing up Jewish on Manhattan’s Upper West Side wasn’t novel in the 1960s, but the Syrian cuisine we ate in my home was certainly unique. Most people are unaware of the community my family belongs to–the relatively small Syrian-Jewish population that resides primarily around Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway. Raised in Manhattan, I was somewhat disconnected from the Syrian scene; even so, we attended many celebratory get-togethers in Brooklyn, and those parties made a lasting impression on me: the sounds of Arabic mixed with Hebrew; the smells of cumin and allspice, rose water and almonds; the richly colored fruit, poured over meat dishes; bright yellow squash served with salty white cheese; candied fruit rinds and powder-dusted pastries.

Since there are no written records of important events in my family’s Middle Eastern past, oral history has become the only means of passing on such information to the next generation. My mother’s maternal grandparents, Nissim Nahum and Mazal Dayan, were born in Tripoli, Libya, in the late 1800s. My great-grandmother Esther Nahum Abadi was one of seven surviving children born in Hebron, Palestine, at the turn of the century. Her father, Nissim, was a wealthy merchant and landowner who moved the family to Egypt to live in style in a large home with servants and even a private carriage. But when an economic recession hit Egypt and many of his colleagues went bankrupt, Nissim took no chances on losing his fortune and moved the family back to Palestine.

In 1923, an eight-year-old girl, her mother, and her younger brother and sister boarded a ship from a port in what was then Palestine (established as Israel in 1948) and made the thirty-day journey across the Atlantic to join their husband and father, Matloub, who had come to America two years earlier. Little did they know that midway on the high seas the immigration laws had changed and that they would face deportation upon arriving in Boston. But Matloub had hired a lawyer to argue their case before a judge and the family was allowed to stay. That little girl was my beloved Grandma Fritzie, who never forgot the sights, tastes, and sounds of her first days in her new “Promised Land.”

The family was then sent to Ellis Island. Grandma Fritzie recalled that long ride, and her first sweet taste of something American: “They put us in a truck and we drove from Boston to New York and took another boat to Ellis Island. Pop followed in a hired car. When the truck stopped somewhere, my father bought us all ice cream. I’ll never forget that taste. I’ve loved it ever since. And the next American things I liked were white bread, which we thought was cake, hot sweet potatoes from a peddler’s cart, and French fries in the deli with lots of ketchup.”

“When the war broke out in 1914,” my great-grandmother told the family, “they wanted to take Matloub, my husband, into the army. But my husband was a scholar and a rabbi, not a fighter. Because he was Allepoan and did not look like the Jewish rabbis in Jerusalem (he had no beard and no turban), they did not believe he was a rabbi. So I said to him, ‘If you are recognized as a rabbi in Aleppo, go there.’ He went and I joined him later and we lived through the war. He earned a poor living teaching in a religious school and being a merchant part of the time. When it became time to think of returning to Jerusalem, we learned that business conditions were very weak and my husband’s chance of supporting us (we had three children at the time) was very poor. He began to get reports that the place to go to raise a family in a good lifestyle was America. He was very determined and said he would go ‘with or without me.’ So I moved our children Frieda [Grandma Fritzie], Abe, and Adele back to Palestine to be with my family, and my husband went to America, and after two-and-a-half years, he sent for us. Our two other children, Evelyn and Seymour, were born in America.”

Grandma Fritzie has one vivid memory of life in Aleppo, where she was born on the Jewish holiday of Purim in 1915 or 1916. At that time, most families of modest means lived in a communal living space opening onto an interior courtyard called a hoh’sh. The hoh’sh was surrounded by private rooms inhabited by mainly Jewish and Muslim families. One kitchen was shared by all. The long hours spent in this communal kitchen created a daily social life among the women. There they were able to express the stresses and joys of their daily lives and also share recipes and cooking tips. “I would stand at the doorway of the kitchen and watch the mothers cooking and chatting,” Grandma Fritzie told me. “The sights and aromas of that place have never left me.”

While my grandmother’s father, Matloub, had hoped to establish himself solely as a businessman in America, the Syrian community already living in New York had other ideas. An enthusiastic band of religious Syrian men had met my great-grandfather as he disembarked at Ellis Island, and they immediately installed him as the official rabbi of the tiny Magen David Synagogue in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Seventy-five years later, this synagogue still exists and has the Old World feel of a Sephardic synagogue. It is still the first choice of the old guard for important religious ceremonies and funerals.

At the age of twenty, my grandmother was first introduced to her husband, Abraham (Al) Hidary, a mild-mannered Syrian businessman who, like Fritzie, had been born in Aleppo. As was the tradition in the Middle East, he and his father were invited to the Abadi home for coffee and sweets to take a look at the available young woman. Grandma Fritzie was told to wait in the kitchen with a tray of Syrian sweets and small cups of sweetened Arabic coffee. At the appropriate moment, she was called into the parlor by her mother. “Unlike some of the other Syrian men I had met in this way, I was favorably impressed by Al. He was good-looking, with hazel eyes, dark, wavy hair, and light skin. And he was tall for a Syrian man.” Not too much is known about Al Hidary’s family. His mother had died in Aleppo when he was two years old. His brother, Jack, was on his way to becoming a wealthy businessman who imported linens from the Far East. His father had been a peddler on the Lower East Side as well as a rabbi, and he had remarried and had six more children with his second wife.

Al Hidary had been on his own from a very young age. When he married Grandma Fritzie, he already ran a store in Pike’s Peak, Colorado, in the summers. After Fritzie married him, they moved immediately to Oklahoma City, where Al rented store space to run “The Linen Shoppe” on Main Street with a partner. “I wasn’t happy moving away from my family. But that’s what they did, look for good business opportunities. Syrians were very hard working and ambitious. They wanted to support their families with class.”

My mother, Annette, was born in Brooklyn, and her sister, Esther Louise (Essie Lou), was born in Oklahoma two years later. Living away from the Orthodox Syrian community in Brooklyn, my grandparents were not extremely observant, but they did keep a kosher home and joined the local Jewish synagogue.

Fritzie was not as happy about returning to New York as she had anticipated. Having been exposed to a world of non-Syrians, she found the world of “Little Aleppo” very conservative. She didn’t have much in common with her siblings. She had taken an appreciative interest in art while in Oklahoma City, and she met some artists in New York who encouraged her to study at the Art Students League. She and Al bought a home in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and she set up an informal artist’s studio in the basement. Every morning, after Annette and Essie went to school, she would cook the evening meal and then rush into “the City” to paint.

My grandmother painted under the name Fritzie Abadi and, from the beginning, her paintings, in the abstract-expressionist style of the 1950s, received enthusiastic reviews. She had several one-woman shows, joined a number of artist’s organizations, and exhibited her work in galleries and museums throughout the country. She maintained at different times in her life studios in the Chelsea Hotel and at another location on 23rd Street; her last studio was in Union Square. She also worked in collage, etching, watercolor, and ceramics. She made beautiful ceramic stoneware jewelry. Later on, she built large constructions, which she filled with found objects.

In 1963, Fritzie married Lewis Ginsburg, an Ashkenazic Jew who was a distinguished trial attorney. “On the first date,” Grandma told me, “he fell in love with me and asked me to marry him. I told him, ‘I will, but on one condition: I don’t want to work. My painting is my work. I only want to paint.’ And he said OK.” They lived in Lewis’s Italianate villa in Mamaroneck, New York, with lots of land, trees, a lake, swans, and peacocks. But Grandma Fritzie insisted on keeping an apartment in Manhattan, as well as her studio. “I needed to come to the city often, to feel the New York culture, to feel the energy, to be around other artists. I simply love the life of the city.” She and Lew entertained and traveled extensively. An invitation to one of her home-cooked feasts was highly prized. Seders and other holiday celebrations there were much anticipated by the family.

Grandma Fritzie’s father, Matloub, died when I was four years old. I don’t have a clear memory of him, but my mother tells me that he used to refer to me in Arabic as El benet el’etee ta’akol basal el eh’dar (“The little girl who eats raw onions”), so amused was he by my precocious appreciation of raw scallions. My great-grandmother Esther died in 1992. The entire Syrian community in Brooklyn turned out for the funeral of the admired wife of the revered Rabbi Matloub Abadi. Happily, I remember her well. I remember her telling my cousins, my sister, and me Middle Eastern folk tales that had been in the family for generations. Sometimes, when she visited us for Shabbat, my mother would get anxious about making sure everything was properly kosher and that some of the rituals, such as lighting the candles, were observed. Great-grandmother Esther was always very exacting about what she wanted. The coffee had to be strong and very hot. The toast had to be very crisp. My mother was delighted one day when my great-grandmother praised her coffee! Esther was our true Old World family matriarch. While sometimes strict and abrupt, she had a rich laugh, a marvelous enthusiasm, and a thick Middle-Eastern accent, which I loved.

By now, you can see what an extraordinary influence my grandmother has been in my life.

Ena b’habek tir. I love you,
Grandma Fritzie.

And to my readers, It’fadalu.
Welcome to our table.

Jennifer Abadi | ABOUT ME