“I’ll have the hummus platter,” I shouted at the waitress over the live, loud hip-hop music. “With mushrooms,” my husband added.
“And I’ll have the sabich,” said my friend, referring to the pita sandwich with hard-boiled egg, fried eggplant, salad, and tehini – an Israeli specialty.
It’s 10 P.M. on a Saturday night and it’s not particularly surprising that my friends and I are able to order homemade Israeli food in New York City: Between the Aroma chain (four in Manhattan, from TriBeCa to the Upper West Side), The Hummus Place (two in the Village, one on the Upper West Side), Hummus Kitchen (two in midtown and one each on the Upper East and West Sides) – not to mention countless other restaurants, salad bars and falafel stands – it’s actually pretty difficult not to eat Middle Eastern food in most parts of the city.
Except that we’re in Silvana, a new Israeli restaurant and lounge in Harlem, the northern section of Manhattan. Harlem was not known for its Israeli – or any kind of white – presence until recently. African-Americans began flocking to Harlem in the early 1900s, becoming the majority in the 1930s, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance—the cultural movement which produced great works of music, art and writing by the black community.
In the new millennium, with the influx of New Yorkers seeking good real estate deals, Harlem has been going through another type of renaissance (although some local residents don’t refer so kindly to the gentrification that is displacing them.) In 1930, African-Americans comprised 98% of the population in central Harlem; by 2008, they were only 62%, and the proportion of whites in the area had doubled, according to the United States census.
My husband and I moved to Harlem more than two years ago, drawn by the large space and low rent (which can be twice as much in 96th street, only one subway station away,) so we’re hardly ones to comment on gentrification, being part of it. (And very much on trend: I’m an artist and he’s Israeli – two segments of the population that usually follow cheap rents.)
But perhaps Sivan Baron Oedraogo, co-owner of Silvana, can better speak about the neighborhood and the changes of the last few decades. After all, SiIlvana is her third place in the neighborhood.
Like many Israelis, Baron Oedraogo planned to finish her education in New York and then return to Israel. But, while working at a French restaurant during her architecture studies at City College, she met her future husband, Abdel Kader Oedraogo, a musician and band manager from Burkina Faso in West Africa.
Her parents were initially apprehensive, when they heard their daughter was marrying an African, but quickly fell in love with her husband when they met him. “There are a lot of similarities between our cultures,” she says of both her husband, the non-religious Muslim, and herself, the non-religious Jew: “We both do brit milah, and we both celebrate holidays,” she says, including the recent Rosh Hashanah and Eid-ad-Adha, with their daughter Alma, 7, and son Fela, 4.
The couple moved to Harlem eight years ago, before they had kids. In 2007, combining their talents as an architect and band manager, Sivan and Abdel opened their first place, Shrine World Music Venue, on 134th street, featuring five to six bands nightly playing all different types of music (“different music, not just jazz,” she says, “to shake up the place.”) In 2010, they opened a rustic, moderately-priced French bistro next door named Yatenga, after a city in Oedraogo’s home country.
Silvana, an Israeli café and retail space upstairs and late-night lounge/music venue downstairs, came in June, 2013. “There was no Israeli restaurant around here, though there are a lot of Israelis and Jews living in the neighborhood,” she says.
But she doesn’t see herself as part of the gentrification. “We offer something for everybody – there’s no age or group or color that doesn’t come here,” she said, noting that they keep their prices moderate so locals can patronize them too. Of course, she doesn’t have to name the expensive restaurants, from Red Rooster Harlem on 125th street – the first of the fancy foodie places to open in Harlem – to the new, celebrity-studded The Cecil on 118th street, which are unaffordable to those of moderate means.
Baron Oedraogo has only had one “incident,” as she calls it. “I was on the bus and an old woman yelled at me, ‘go back to where you came from!’ I was really offended — I was crying,” she recalls.
As an Israeli, it’s exciting for her to see the neighborhood changing so quickly. “In Israel, which I visit once a year, you don’t see that many radical changes.” Yet she can understand the hostility: “I think some of [the locals in Harlem] don’t like it and I think they are afraid. They are afraid that they will have to move - people are coming here and changing everything for them. They don’t like it.” Others do like it and “they make it a community,” she says. It sometimes takes her a half-an-hour to walk home, because she stops on the street to talk to everyone. “It’s really a neighborhood and you feel it - that’s what makes it really, really special.”
She’s happy that more Israelis are moving into the neighborhood, but sends her kids, who both speak Hebrew, to a public school, rather than the Harlem Hebrew Charter School. They have private lessons at Chabad.
Recently, about a dozen Israelis who she’d never seen in the hood before had breakfast at Silvana. “Whenever you find one Israeli, you'll find a second, third and fourth," she says. "Others say, ‘Let’s go move there.’”