After menu is deemed antisemitic, eatery throws Shabbat dinner for Jewish neighbors

NEW YORK (RNS) — The dinner menu last Friday, (Jan. 26), at Ayat, a restaurant in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, included a dish that might be called a special for the Palestinian eatery: challah, the voluminous woven bread that is a staple of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine and a regular feature of the Shabbat table. 

The bread was served to more than a thousand guests who responded to an invitation to a free Shabbat dinner posted three weeks ago on Ayat’s Instagram page.

“It’s about breaking barriers, fostering dialogue, and connecting on a human level. This evening is more than a meal; it’s an opportunity to share stories, embrace diverse perspectives, and celebrate our shared humanity,” read the post that received more than 10,000 likes.

The idea came to Ayat’s co-owners, Abdul Elenani and Ayat Masoud, after they faced backlash for naming the seafood section of their latest restaurant’s menu “From the River to the Sea,” a poke at the recently resurrected pro-Palestinian slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” 

The slogan refers to the liberation of the region from the Jordan River west to the Mediterranean Sea. Critics see it as a call for violence against Jews and a denial of Israel’s right to existence. In an explainer about the term on its website, the Anti-Defamation League says it makes “members of the Jewish and pro-Israel community feel unsafe and ostracized.” 

The menu sparked an outcry on the neighborhood’s Facebook page, where many accused the restaurant’s owners of being antisemitic. 

Elenani told the Daily Beast the slogan is a non-violent call for the freedom of Palestinians.

The Ditmas Park restaurant is the newest of five Ayat locations scattered across three of New York’s five boroughs. Elenani and Masoud, husband and wife, opened the first in the chain in 2020 in Bay Ridge, a Brooklyn neighborhood with a sizable Middle Eastern population. Shortly afterward, a New York Times restaurant critic raved about its interpretations of Palestinian street food. The restaurant is named after Masoud, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants who came from Jerusalem. 

Since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out, the restaurant’s comment section has been flooded with negative reviews reacting to its mural displaying a Palestinian flag and other bits of decor that customers considered “political.” The controversy blew up again over the new menu, which appeared in December.

For the owners, a Shabbat dinner was a way to set the record straight by reaffirming their respect for their Jewish neighbors while also celebrating their Palestinian heritage. They received help from local members of the Jewish anti-Zionist organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, to design the Shabbat ceremony. 

In a white tent set up outside the restaurant, Laura Elkeslassy, a singer specializing in North African folk music, was accompanied by Brooklyn’s Egalitarian Sephardi Mizrahi Community. The service focused on Tu B’Shevat, or New Year of the Trees, a holiday celebrated the day before (Jan. 25). 

Before the service ended, hundreds were already queuing in front of the restaurant to try some of the buffet’s Palestinian delicacies. Guests were invited to try Fattet Jaj, roasted chicken served with pita, yogurt and rice. The menu also included hummus, baba ghanoush and fresh salads. 

The dinner, open to everyone, was primarily aimed at Jewish residents of the neighborhood, such as Beth Baltimore, 43. “I think it’s really important as a Jewish neighbor to support Ayat being here in our community,” she said, adding the name of the restaurant’s menu section didn’t offend her.

Like many who showed up, Baltimore supported Palestinian liberation and said it was necessary, as a Jewish person, to acknowledge what was happening in Gaza. 

Jullian Lerner, 22, agreed. “I think it’s important for Jewish people to talk about what’s going on because there’s a difference between being Jewish and being Zionist,” she said. “I think people are considering it the same thing, and they are not.” 

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