A Syrian Seder Brings Back Memories of Damascus

At Shoula Sutton's Passover table, her family is reminded not only that they were once slaves in Egypt, but also that they once thrived in Damascus.

Rice and meat with nuts, next to fried kibbeh
Rice and meat with nuts, next to fried kibbeh Shoula Sutton and Toune Zagha Sasson

This Seder, New Yorker Shoula Sutton will make kibbeh b’riz, made with a shell of ground rice, and kibbeh matza, a Jewish invention, both stuffed with meat. Sixty of them. Sutton will also cook a raisins-only charoset for a few hours in a 100-year-old pot. She will serve artichoke hearts two ways, a vegetarian version stuffed with peas and carrots and another with meat stuffing in lemon sauce. For the main course, the seder table will feature lamb shoulder on the bone, stuffed with rice; ground beef and mushrooms; a dish of rice and beef that was cooked in the lamb’s broth and topped with pistachios, almonds and pine nuts; and stuffed onions. She’ll have a mango and Asian pear salad with jalapeno and lime, a platter of cauliflower and broccoli, and a frittata-like dish of fresh fava beans with tarragon, celery, parsley, scallions, eggs and spices. For dessert there’s homemade marzipan and a nut cake.

And this is just the first seder, in which Shoula and her husband will host 18 family members and friends at their home in Manhattan. Aunts, uncles and cousins will come from all over the country to share the holiday together. For the second seder the next day, Shoula plans to make kibbeh matza, a veal pocket with truffles, stuffed grape leaves, artichokes, and meatballs with cherries.

After all these years, I think I’ve finally found someone who serves more food than my own mother.

And this Jewish mother serves this much fabulous food year round, because it’s more than just nutrition and love that she wants to share with her extended family. It also her own tradition and culture that she wants to preserve through the food and through family meals.

The Sutton family comes from Damascus. Shoula’s grandfather, Aaron Zagha, was a famous mosaic artist and major philanthropist. His house was a palatial museum with 32 rooms. Some of the pieces he made are displayed in the Knesset and in the Presidential Palace in Lebanon. Aaron and his wife, Zahiye Zagha Levy, were generous hosts who would slaughter a lamb for special guests and serve it with homemade delicacies.

Toune Zagha Sasson, Shoula Sutton's mother
Shoula Sutton and Toune Zagha Sasson

Both of Shoula’s parents were born in Damascus and moved from there to Beirut, where they met and started a family. They lived within the Jewish community in Wadi Abu Jamil, the Jewish quarter of Beirut. While most Jews in Arab countries left shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel, the Zagha family stayed in Lebanon until the late 1970s.

“We had a very nice life in Beirut,” Shoula told me in an interview. “There was no anti-Semitism, not that I was aware of.” She studied in the Catholic school, and the family spoke Arabic and French at home.

In 1974, Shoula went on a trip to Israel, Vienna and the United States, where her sister had been living. But in April 1975, while she was abroad, the civil war broke out in Lebanon and she decided to stay with her sister. Their parents followed a couple of years later, although her father still travelled back and forth to Beirut, until he died there in 1978. At the time, there were still 400 Jews in the community.

Shoula’s mother, Toune Zagha Sasson, “recreated her life from Damascus in the U.S.,” said Jennifer Sutton, Shoula’s daughter, who lives in Washington D,C. She made sure her family lived close to her and that she was a part of their daily lives. Toune’s friends were all from the Jewish community in Lebanon and she only cooked the same delicious Syrian Jewish food she grew up with. Until her death in 2008 she spoke only French, Arabic and Hebrew. Not a word of English.

“She was a superb hostess, a great cook, legendary for her hospitality and her marvelous tables,” Shoula said about her mother. “She is really the inspiration behind my cooking.” Shoula’s dream is to write a cookbook with her mother’s recipes, and the many family and friends who were lucky enough to try Toune’s cooking are already waiting impatiently.

Aaron Zagha and his family in Damascus, probably early 1920's
Shoula Sutton and Toune Zagha Sasson

The younger generations have fully integrated in the American society, but still keep the strong values of their culture, family and food. While raising three children, Shoula worked full time in finance, and made a home-cooked dinner every night. In fact, her daughter Jennifer feels that Shoula is the one proof to Anne-Marie Slaughter that you CAN have it all. The extended family that lived around them helped too.

Integration into American society never went so far as to change the way the family eats. Jennifer remembers having labneh and za'atar for breakfast every day and Syrian Jewish food at almost every meal. Jennifer still finds it hard to eat anything other than her mother’s cooking.

The Sutton’s Passover seder is a great example of traditions being upheld, on the one hand, but also adjusted to fit current times.

It is a Jewish Syrian tradition to wrap the afikoman in a cloth napkin, then pass it to each man and boy around the table, who move the wrapped afikoman from their right shoulder to the left one, carrying it like a sack on their back. They recite in Hebrew from the book of Exodus the description of the sons of Israel carrying their dough as they left Egypt, “on their shoulders in kneading troughs wrapped in clothing” and everyone asks them in Arabic, Min wen? (Where are you coming from?), and Min jai? (And where are you going?) The traditional answer is to say you’re coming from Egypt and going to Jerusalem, but Shoula’s family lets each one of the guests (yes, including the aunts and daughters) tell the family where they came from this year and where are they heading to.

“Here in America, we have adopted an equal-opportunity tradition so that all guests, females included, participate,” said Shoula. A modern family twist on an old tradition.

Another unique Seder tradition has to do with the recitation of the 10 plagues. The eldest unmarried girl of the family holds a silver bowl while the head of seder pours wine into the bowl for each of the 10 plagues. Then she pours it away to rid them symbolically, making a wish to be married by the next year.

Aside from the two Seder meals, Shoula feeds the family another two lunches during the holiday. So there’s a lot of cooking to be done. And a lot of eating.

“You eat because you get together,” she says. “It’s all about the family.”