BROOKLYN — “Goy, goy, goy, goy,” said Kevin Medina, pointing at each of his friends around a sandwich-laden table at David’s Brisket House, a hole-in-the-wall joint in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. “We're just a bunch of goyim who love brisket.”
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Each had paid $45 to feast on pastrami and brisket, French fries and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray and Cream sodas as part of an Iftar dinner benefiting a Jewish organization that resettles Muslim immigrants. It was held during Ramadan at a Jewish deli now owned by religious Yemeni Muslims, who keep it halal. Confused yet? It’s a quintessential New York story.
The evening was a fundraiser for HIAS, one of the country’s premier refugee resettlement agencies (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), and organized by David “Fat Dave” Freedenberg, a food tour guide. Freedenberg isn’t related to the David of the Brisket House, but he visits weekly on his food tours and has known the Yemeni owners for more than 10 years.
Back in February he saw televised coverage of a HIAS-organized rally in lower Manhattan, where thousands braved bitter cold and sleet to publicly protest the Trump travel ban. “I’d never heard of HIAS,” said Freedenberg, who is Jewish and grew up in Maryland. “But I thought ‘wow, this HIAS is helping Muslim refugees, that’s great. I wanted to donate but don’t have any money. So I thought, ‘let’s raise money and support the deli and have a great time.’”
He is part of a collective called Breaking Bread NYC, which was created by people in the food business days after Trump’s travel ban was handed down in January. Breaking Bread runs culinary events focused on the cuisines of the seven countries whose nationals were targeted in Trump’s executive order and since starting has hosted Iraqi dinners, a Syrian lunch and a Syrian-Jewish/Sephardic lunch, as well as a walking tour of the Kings Highway neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Freedenberg, who lives in Manhattan, organized a sold-out fundraising meal at David’s Brisket House in March. He decided to host another and tie it to the traditional Ramadan iftar break-fast meal. It too sold out, so he is now planning two more.
Though Freedenberg timed the dinner to start as the daily Muslim fast concluded, none of the 24 people who bought tickets and filled the tiny restaurant were Muslim. In the end, it was just the three restaurant employees who, after everyone up front was sating themselves on overstuffed deli sandwiches, sat cross-legged in a small area behind the kitchen, said the traditional Muslim blessing and ate from a foil pan of chicken, rice and potatoes.
One of them was Alladin Gazali, whose family has owned David’s Brisket House for the past 40 years, he told Haaretz.
The restaurant was started by a Jew named David in the 1930s and changed hands in the 1970s, when he ditched Brooklyn for Las Vegas. David sold it to a Yemeni Muslim and Yemeni Jew who together owned a bagel and donut shop across the street. Eventually the Jewish partner retired and since then, David’s Brisket House has been entirely Muslim-owned and operated. Today it is run by the original Muslim owner’s nephew. His son is Aladdin, who at the end of the evening, everyone’s bellies full, expressed gratitude: “It’s a great thing you guys are doing this. At the end of the day we all human. This shows the world that there’s some kindness.”
Today, while Bedford-Stuyvesant in general is rapidly gentrifying, it's less visible in the part of the neighborhood where David’s Brisket House is located. Next door is a bookstore whose awning features the Muslim crescent and star. A few doors down a barbershop called Bed-Style is brightly lit and packed and just past that is the Jamaican Pattie Hut.
David’s Brisket House is occasionally written up in newspapers and food blogs as a hidden gem with the best brisket and pastrami in New York. "Pastrami, baby!" a diner exclaimed in a New York Times review. "As salaam alaikum, pastrami!"
Most of the ticket price for Thursday night’s dinner went to cover the cost of the David’s Brisket House spread. But $10 from each will go to HIAS, says Freedenberg, who put out HIAS buttons, stickers and pamphlets at each place setting in the restaurant, fitting them in between platters of pickles and containers of macaroni salad and coleslaw. “It’s not a lot but it means that HIAS will make around $1,000” from the four dinners.
Some of the diners Thursday night were Jewish and others not. They included young professionals and older Jewish folks.
Medina, who works as a communications staff member for a non-profit organization and is a non-Jew of Irish and Colombian descent, heard a friend rave about “the best brisket joint in New York.” When he saw notice of this week’s dinner on Facebook, “I read the description and thought ‘it’s a chance to support a good cause and eat at a place I’ve been wanting to try.’ It’s perfect.”