The Middle East In Brooklyn

by

07/02/2001

1419 Coney Island Avenue ny ny

Neighborhood: Brooklyn

Far from the Zagat’s feeding trail crouches a small, fluorescent-lit restaurant in Midwood, Brooklyn, halfway between Park Slope and the sea. Its name is the Olympic Pita Corporation, but rather than the Hellenism which the word “Olympic” implies, the restaurant is firmly for and about Israel. On a typical winter weeknight, Jews of varying levels of observance fill Olympic Pita’s two small rooms. They place their orders with beautiful, unsmiling teenage girls, and then the more religious among them go to the sink in the corner to wash their hands and say a prayer. Soon, they find their plates crowded with Israeli salad, shnitzel, shwarma, and kebab. They drink Cokes and chat with people at neighboring tables. They tear pieces of soft warm pita from baskets in the center of the table. They eat very, very well.

These days, the scene at Olympic Pita is fairly placid. Women in wigs and men in shirtsleeves commandeer a few back tables near the wall-size Bob Ross-ish landscape; closer to the front of the room, bare-headed young men in tight shirts flirt with the waitresses in Hebrew. Food is delivered, smiles are exchanged, and customers leave drowsy and full. “Kosher tapas!” sang a Manhattanite named Jeffrey, dining out the other night with his wife Alyssa, as he gestured toward the array of small dishes which covered their table. There was hummous and tabbouleh, salty hot mushrooms, bright purple beets, and a mayonnaise-y blend of canned corn and potato which looked like English nursery food but was actually, Jeffrey promised, delicious. “It’s the best kosher restaurant in the city. I come here all the way from midtown whenever I can. Midtown!” he repeated, and speared a mushroom to make his point.

Alyssa nodded. “It’s the best shwarma in the city. I’ve never found anything like it. They do it just like how they do it in Israel.”

“Just like in Israel,” Jeffrey repeated, munching happily.

Olympic Pita does seem like it belongs somewhere in Israel, perhaps near the Shuk Ha-Carmel in Tel Aviv or in the Ben Yahuda quarter of Jerusalem. Not only is the food a perfect reflection of the country, but so is the political spirit of the place. This past summer, when Bill Clinton was pressuring Ehud Barak to trade Israeli soil for Middle Eastern peace, the atmosphere at the restaurant was as charged as it must have been in the Old City. The waitresses were short-tempered. The restaurant seemed overheated. Teenage boys in black yarmulkes sat in angry huddles, cursing the the treacherous “peace.” One night, an American made the mistake of telling her dinner companion, a little too loudly, that she couldn’t understand why Israel didn’t make concessions. What were a few holy sites, she asked, in comparison to a human life? She was interrupted by a man at the next table. “Leave,” he said. “Your ignorance makes me sick – I will not be able to continue eating until you are gone.” The man proceeded to stare at her blackly until she dropped a twenty on the table and left.

In a city where land-for-peace seems a reasonable trade, Olympic Pita – and much of its surrounding neighborhood – is a stronghold of support for Israel’s integrity. “This restaurant is a piece of Israel, so of course it’s a political restaurant,” said a skullcapped diner on a recent Thursday, ruminating on the Middle East in between bites of his chicken kebab. “Anything Israeli is also by definition political.” And that includes restaurants in New York City. “Israel,” the man added, “is not only defined by her physical borders. She exists in Jewish people everywhere.”

But of course, Israel is defined by her physical borders, and the customers at Olympic Pita know this. With the conservative Ariel Sharon in charge of the Knesset, the restaurant’s customers smile a little more and linger a little longer at the tables. No longer is their homeland in danger of division; it is now much less likely that Jerusalem will be partitioned. “Let’s just say it’s a little better these days,” said an American-born woman in a long skirt, sitting near Jeffrey and Alyssa. When asked whether or not the peripatetic violence in Israel bothered her, she said that it did, of course. “But violence is temporary, a moment.” On the other hand, a dismantled Israel could crumble forever. She, and most of the others at the restaurant, are always aware of the fragility of home.

Walking down the blocks near the restaurant, one will come across the Sukkah Depot, the Glatt Mart, felafel stands and kosher supermarkets. The neighborhood overflows with opportunities to taste Israel. But New York’s more intrepid foodies, the ones who celebrate Astoria’s Greek restaurants or Brighton Beach’s Russian, have yet to cultify Midwood. Perhaps this is because most foodies seek dinner without a side order of politics – an impossibility in this part of Brooklyn.

Is Political passion what gives this food flavor?

“Nah,” said Alyssa, who had shlepped in from midtown. “I don’t come to talk about politics. I just come for the shwarma.”

A man at the table beside us called out, “But shwarma is political!”

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