A 14-minute drive separates Paterson and Fair Lawn in northern New Jersey. The former is home to America’s largest Palestinian community and largest proportion of Muslim residents. The latter is probably the city with the biggest proportion of Israelis in the region and one of the most Jewish cities in the United States.
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There are nine synagogues in Fair Lawn, a city with a population of 30,000. Among the synagogues are an Ashkenazi one and a Sephardic one, a Reform and a Conservative, a few Orthodox ones and – one can’t go without – two competing Chabad branches, one for former Israelis and one for the Russian Jewish community. There is no shortage of Hebrew newspapers or of hummus, and Osem snacks can be found in almost any grocery. You won’t spend more than five minutes in a park without hearing someone speaking Hebrew.
Despite the heavy Israeli presence, and with all due respect to Israeli snacks found in Fair Lawn, Paterson affords a much more powerful experience. Whereas Hebrew is often heard at newspaper stands or between neighbors at nearby Fair Lawn, English is now officially the second language in Paterson, and sometimes not even that. Paterson has several intersecting main streets, with numerous Palestinian meat restaurants, Lebanese bakeries, stores selling Syrian sweets and stands selling spices from Turkey.
Loud Arabic music spills out of every store selling hookahs, large Syrian and Lebanese flags adorn storefront windows, and photos of the Temple Mount, the Al-Haram mosque in Mecca and the Beirut shoreline look down on you in any restaurant or barber shop. An entire Middle East is squeezed into a dense and lively area that spreads over barely four square kilometers, offering visitors culinary bounty and diverse culture that is hard to duplicate in any other Western country, including Israel.
In Fair Lawn the volume is much lower, the effect much more restrained, even if the last adjective one would think of to describe Israelis is “restrained.” Perhaps this is because of the smooth integration of Israelis in the United States, or maybe it’s due to the big difference in the place the two cities hold in the lives of these two national-ethnic communities. For the Arab population, Paterson is the pulse of life, an entire world channeled into a few bustling streets. For former Israelis, in contrast, within a distance of 12 miles in any direction there are dozens if not hundreds of kosher restaurants and Israeli food of every kind. Not surprisingly, Arabs don’t go to Fair Lawn and Israelis rarely go to Paterson. As mentioned, only 14 minutes by car separate two worlds that are similar yet so far apart: hummus and shawarma in a pita on one side, fried eggplant and tabbouleh salad on the other.
Palestinian food a lot cheaper than Israeli
It’s midday on Sunday. At Al-Basha, the most successful Palestinian restaurant in Paterson, there are no vacant seats. A long line of families and local youths wait outside for a table. A basket of large lafah (taboon or flat) bread sits on every table, large plates of hummus exchange hands, salads of finely chopped vegetables surrounded by small plates of pickled vegetables, tahini and fried eggplant, and, of course, meat skewers or fat-dripping steaks lie before every customer. Diners get soup by themselves. For a set price you eat as much as you want. Not bad for $4.
The prices explain some of the differences between the Palestinian and Jewish communities. In the latter, a plate of falafel costs $3 and a large hummus plate with a large vegetable salad will cost $4 per serving. A whole oven-baked chicken costs $13, including salad and one other item. Whereas pita bread and olives are on the house at Al-Basha, the Balaboosta restaurant run by former Israeli Einat Admony will offer fried olives on organic labaneh (Greek yogurt) for $10. If you want some bread at Meir Adoni’s you can have a Jerusalem bagel for $12 or challah with honey and garlic for $10 – each restaurant and its own style, each community and its own means.
“Half of our customers are Palestinian,” says Yasser Baker, son of Al-Basha’s founder, Mohammed Baker. Yasser, 23, manages the restaurant with his older brother. Phone orders keep coming through a headphone he wears all the time. At the same time he supervises the waiters and drivers delivering orders, leaving every few minutes. Everything, naturally, is done in Arabic. The family came from Ramallah, he says, arriving in New Jersey 20 years ago. Shortly afterward they opened the restaurant, which is now renowned throughout the area. “In recent years we’ve had more and more Americans,” he says, quickly adding, “Indians and Pakistanis too.”
How about Israelis?
“Everyone comes here, including Jews and Israelis, some of them tourists and some local residents. Not enough, but they come.” he says. I look around. Other than one or two tables where English is spoken, Arabic seems to be dominant. “There is much awareness today of Mediterranean food, an understanding that this is better quality food than the junk food that people are accustomed to here. Here everything is natural, not processed. It’s much healthier; except the oil.”
Even though Yasser left Ramallah at age three and has lived most of his life in New Jersey, it seems the years in Paterson have preserved his Palestinian identity. He speaks English with a Middle Eastern accent and, as he admits, hardly touches American food. “I like flying to Ramallah for vacations, but I can’t see myself returning there to live,” he says.
A two minutes’ walk in any direction brings you to similar meat restaurants, Lebanese, Syrian or from other parts of the Middle East. I ask him if there’s any difference in the food they serve. “In principle it’s the same food but the flavor is different, the spicing is different. Palestinian food has stronger flavors, we like using more spices than Lebanese and Syrian dishes have,” he says.
And what about American customers in comparison to Arab ones? “Arabs always come late,” he says with a laugh. “Americans are very orderly with their eating habits. All their meals are at a set time. Arabs, on the other hand, can come at 10 in the evening and ask for breakfast. They don’t care, they’ll eat around the clock.”
For Italians it's cannoli, for Arabs it's knafeh
Two blocks from the restaurant, Mohammed Asuqi sells traditional sweets in his family bakery. He came to New Jersey from Jordan, although his family originally came from Tul Karm in the West Bank. The place is colorful, eye-catching. Big platters of baked goods are lined up behind a shiny glass barrier decorated with looping Arabic script. There are many types of basbousa sweet cakes, some with semolina, others with peanuts. There is also almond-covered basbousa as well as Zainab fingers and trays of knafeh, a soft brown one and a crumbly orange one. There are several trays of baklava, one with walnuts, another with almonds, a third with pistachios. The price ranges from $10 to $15 a kilogram.
A few blocks to the north, at a place called “Nablus Sweets” run by Shursan Abed-Rabbo, you can also find the same traditional trays of knafeh, baklava and other baked goods, but here there are also some American desserts as well – if only on a limited scale, on the side, as if fulfilling an obligation. You can find a strawberry jelly roll filled with whipped cream that Americans love, a chocolate layer cake with Oreo cookies on top, a traditional tiramisu and even rows of macaroons, arranged by color.
“There is no better baklava than the Syrian one,” he admits. “I don’t know why, they simply learned to prepare it differently. Maybe they invented it. Generally, their desserts are considered the best.” What about Palestinian desserts? “Palestinians are strong when it comes to knafeh. Our knafeh is considered the best quality one.” What about Turkish desserts? “Theirs are very sweet, perhaps too sweet. They like using lots of syrup.”
Abed-Rabbo also originally came from Ramallah, immigrating to the U.S. in 1979. He came to study at a university in New Jersey and received a degree in chemistry and biology. For 10 years he worked in a laboratory at the local water authority. In 1996 he left biology and opened his bakery. It has two floors, shining chandeliers and dozens of traditional coffee pots on the shelves. “In 2000 we returned with all our children to Ramallah, to care for our parents,” he continues. The children, five girls and a boy, all of whom grew up in the U.S., went to a private school where English was spoken. “When they wanted to go to Bir Zeit University they were told to take the Palestinian Authority’s admissions test. These tests are only given in Arabic. There was no way they could pass them. We therefore had no choice but to return to New Jersey.”
He’s not complaining. He says “God Bless America” several times during our conversation. “This really is the land of unlimited opportunities. Everyone is equal here. If you come to Paterson you’ll be treated like everyone else. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Muslim or Christian. I wish it were like that in Israel as well.”