Josiane Mansoura puts a selection of goodies – thin slices of apricot roulade, pistachio-filled baklava, baklava with mixed fillings, Turkish delight, pistachio-filled kataifi – on a plate and pushes it toward me. “You see how many pistachios there are in each one?” she says with some irritation, as I’ve just asked why the pastries at the Mansoura Bakery she runs are so pricey.
“These aren’t just any desserts. Do you know how much work goes into them? Do you know how much experience there is here?” she asks. “When people buy from us, they’re buying expertise, they’re buying many decades of experience. They come because they know the name Mansoura from Aleppo and Cairo. They come to us because we have more than 200 years of experience. Because their great-grandfather bought from us. Everything here is original. Even the pastry trays are the original trays we brought with us from Egypt in 1961.”
Mansoura Bakery is one of the oldest and most famous Jewish bakeries in New York – even if its high prices leave a slightly bitter taste. A pound (454 grams) of baklava, kataifi and other pastries costs $30, while the different kinds of chocolate – chocolate-covered marzipan, glacé apricots, glacé pineapple, almond croquant, pistachio clusters and many other tempting varieties – will set you back $40 a pound.
With perfect timing, one of those customers walks through the door. She’s an elegantly dressed, middle-aged woman from the local Syrian-Jewish community, heavily made up and dripping with gold jewelry. “Tell him how many generations your family has been our customers,” Josiane says to her. The woman thinks for a moment. “My grandfather, for sure,” she replies, and then, after another brief pause, adds, “Actually, my grandfather’s father also bought from you.”
“You see?” Josiane says to me, grinning with satisfaction. It is a rare smile that will rarely resurface in the 90 minutes we spend together.
The Mansoura family has been in Brooklyn for the past 56 years. “The Syrian community that lives here has a lot of wealthy people,” Josiane acknowledges. “Mainly businesspeople. Many of them work in real estate. Some own clothing stores. Almost everyone has a successful business.”
In last year’s presidential election, most of them voted for Donald Trump, she says – as did she. “They held a successful fundraising event for him,” she says proudly. “Maybe because many of the Syrian Jews feel connected him from the years when they and he were both in the world of New York real estate. Or maybe because there’s a lot of support here for his positions.”
One of those is Trump’s tough policy on immigration – including that controversial executive order banning the entry of people from six predominantly Muslim countries and restricting the entry of Syrian refugees. Josiane says the local Syrian community welcomed the move. “Of course he’s right,” she declares. “You know who these immigrants are? Whom they’re coming with and what they want to do in our country? Why don’t they go to Saudi Arabia? Why don’t their brothers take them into their country? Why should America take them? These people cost the United States a lot of money. They get free health insurance and food stamps, and then they work under the table and don’t pay taxes. I know these people from up close. I lived with them in Morocco. They would burn Jews alive. Why do you think we fled from there? Because of the fear. So now they want to come here.”
She doesn’t let the constant flow of customers interrupt her diatribe. It almost seems like her passion for politics is on a par with her passion for pastries.
It’s early afternoon, 24 hours before Thanksgiving, and people are busy doing their final shopping for the holiday. But it’s unlikely many in this shop have pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce on their lists.
Josiane knows almost all the customers by name – Syrian Jews who have come to buy sweets for the holiday. She arranges them to order, on round glass trays. “I have a talent for arranging these trays,” she says. Few other bakeries could afford to charge $100 for an arrangement like this, not including the tray.
When Josiane says her family holiday meal will include turkey, stuffing, pumpkin, mashed potatoes and pie, I can’t hide a look of surprise. “We’re 100 percent Americans and we celebrate like the Americans,” she says in response to my expression. “But I never for one moment forget my roots, the good times our family had in Morocco.”
Making real sahlab
The original Mansoura bakery opened in Aleppo circa 1780, and for the next 130 years was one of the north Syrian city’s most popular. Customers kept pouring in and the sahlab milk dessert flowed like water. In the early 20th century, though, the family was forced to pack up its baking pans and flee.
“We don’t want to get into politics,” Josiane’s son David cautions, “but let’s just say at that time, the start of the 20th century, things were very, very hard for Aleppo’s Jewish community. There was terrible distress for a whole bunch of reasons. Things came to a head when the Ottoman authorities demanded that the Jews enlist in the army.”
That mandatory draft – which was the last straw for Aleppo’s Jews – was a direct result of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which sparked a mass wave of emigration. Some Jews left for South America, others for the United States. Abraham Mansoura, who was 15 at the time, made his way to Manchester, England – where there was a large concentration of Syrian Jews – before ultimately settling in Cairo.
“When Abraham arrived in Manchester, they didn’t want to let him in, they said he was sick,” recalls Josiane. “That was just an excuse. They knew he was a Jew. So they did all kinds of medical exams just to find some reason not to let him in. Eventually, they made up that he had glaucoma. They did the same thing to a lot of Jews, not just him,” she added.
When Abraham arrived in Egypt, he persisted with the one thing his family had always excelled at: baking. As in Aleppo, the family business also flourished in Cairo. The Jewish and non-Jewish elite flocked to the bakery. After some years, it expanded into a restaurant and life was, well, sweet.
“Two presidents, Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, were customers of our bakery in Cairo,” David says. “King Farouk was also a customer – he would send his driver to pick up desserts from the bakery. He liked everything, but he mostly loved our ice cream – real Turkish ice cream with Aleppo pistachio and sahlab.”
“Real sahlab,” Josiane interjects, “not like the sahlab in Israel. There they sell you fake sahlab – water with lots of sugar and cornstarch. What do you expect? Real sahlab like ours is very expensive to make.”
The family business continued to thrive, until Abraham and his children received a reminder that there are things even a tray of the finest baklava can’t buy – like equal rights or fair treatment. “When Nasser came to power, all kinds of harassment started against the Jews,” says Josiane. In Egypt, the turning point came with the Sinai Campaign of 1956: Nasser viewed Egypt’s Jewish citizens as collaborators with the Zionist enemy and instigated harsh penalties. Property was confiscated, mass arrests made, civil servants fired and 25,000 Jews were expelled.
“After the 1956 war, they wouldn’t let customers come to our bakery,” recounts Josiane. Isaac, the father of her husband, Alan, was running the family business at the time. “The family was eventually given an ultimatum to pack their bags and leave Cairo within 24 hours, and also to sign a document that said they had no intention of ever returning to Egypt,” she recalls.
The Mansouras weren’t the only ones fleeing for their lives. According to figures from the Diaspora Museum, there were more than 50,000 Jews in Cairo in 1945, but that number had declined to only a few thousand by 1960.
Isaac lived in Paris for three years before obtaining a U.S. visa in 1961. He settled in Brooklyn, where the majority of the Syrian-Jewish community in the United States is still based.
“He came into the country legally, not like all the immigrants streaming into America today,” says Josiane. Of Moroccan descent herself, she has been running the business for the last few years. She entered the picture in the mid-1970s, when she met her husband Alan while he was on a short trip to Israel, and later followed him to the East Coast.
She’s been involved in the family business ever since, living and breathing the famous Syrian desserts and the sweet Turkish pastries. “Syrian desserts are known as the best in the world,” she insists. What’s the magic secret? “First of all, you need a lot of Aleppo pistachios,” she reveals. But that’s only the beginning, as you’ll discover when you taste the many delicious treats on offer.