Lebanese-American Cultural Heritage:
A fascinating Legacy of Pride and Love!
During my short trip to New York in 2015, I had a fascinating experience in meeting a lovely young American in her mid-twenties; a graduate in Arts who is also a writer, a poet and a painter. My fascination was triggered when, in that event gathering, I heard her talking how she met the girl who would become her best-friend. When introduced, Erica had said proudly, “I am a Lebanese descendant.”
I was in awe, for a simple yet significant reason: Erica is neither a first nor a second generation of Lebanese descendants. The father of her grand-mother emigrated from Lebanon in about 1910 to the US where an uncle of his had long preceded him some time in the 1800s.
As a direct line of descendant, that places Erica in the 3rd generation! And yet, at her reception table that evening, her Lebanese dishes reigned deliciously appealing.
For me, a Lebanese raised in Lebanon and who have traveled plenty, such prideful acknowledgement of her roots was deeply touching…. and intriguing, I must say. Neither she nor her mother, and not even her grand-mother, were born in Lebanon, nor got to visit it ever!
How has the Lebanese cultural heritage prevailed to Erica’s generation since the 1900s? How has the love of the homeland and its cultural heritage been preserved and transmitted? Not in bits and pieces, as it has appeared to me, but with what has sounded like a source of genuine pride!
In my quest for answers, I am tracing back Erica’s genealogy line to host today her grand-mother, Joyce O. Saydah, in an exclusive interview.
Our Featured Guest
A graduate of the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts, former American Actor and business woman, Joyce O. Saydah was born in New York in 1932. Both her parents were Lebanese immigrants who had met in San Juan, Puerto-Rico in 1925.
Love united Joyce in marriage to Ted, a Brooklyn-born son of Lebanese settlers. With her family growing, Joyce left her career to dedicate herself to her husband and four children, among which JoAnne, the mother of our charming Erica. Today, Joyce is a proud grand-mother to five grand-children.
And we spoke…
“Joyce, you certainly represent an ideal example of how the legacy of the Lebanese culture is being preserved and transmitted in the diaspora. I am certainly thrilled to convey to our people in the homeland how you have maintained and transmitted our cultural heritage.
As you know, my blog thrives to reveal Lebanon culture to the world through one of its most important and persistent aspects, Food, but also to connect Lebanese descendants to their roots. Hence, my quest here will undertake that venue with you.
To start with the onset of your family presence in the U.S., could you tell us about the towns of origin of both your parents?
I do not know much about their towns of origin. My father was from Tripoli in the North of Lebanon, and my mother was from the mountainous plains of Kobayet in the North.
While born and raised in New York, in a traditional Lebanese family, what were the significant features that defined your family culture back then?
My family culture was mostly defined by a pride of origin, starting from the Phoenicians, and the history of the Lebanese Christian community and customs. We followed the fasting, which concurred with the Catholicism of my youth in the U.S.
Another significant feature we had was a European custom of being in boarding school, like my mother before us. This was normal. When you were of a certain class, this is how you educated your children.
But my mother insisted to have us home on weekends despite the strict rules of the boarding school in that regard. That was my New York heritage.
The foods that prevailed in our home were Lebanese. We always had 8 months out of the year great use of vegetarian foods because of the Christian tradition of Lent of Advent and the Fridays meatless fasting.
We always had Laban and Labneh at home, and also salads which were not commonly on an American table at that time. My family was Continental and well-traveled, and so they brought in many different dishes home.
I was surprised when I visited the homes of my schoolmates to see the huge limitations of foods. Ours was always full. I believe that was part of our Lebanese culture. My mother did the cooking, both American and always Lebanese, as the housekeepers did not know how to cook.
Openness to hospitality was very strong in my family home; a very Lebanese cultural feature. When the UN was established in New York, many representatives from Lebanon were frequent guests in our home.
That earned my parents’ home the nickname of “Lebanese embassy” in the community. Two Presidents of Lebanon resided at our place during their visits to the US: President Camille Chamoun and President Sleiman Frangieh, both were friends of my father.
Did your parents speak with you in their native language? If not, please tell us why and if you wished they did. If yes, did you transmit it, or any of it, to your children?
I spent time in the West Indies where my grandparents had also a business, there and in the US. My parents spoke in Lebanese when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying.
I was so taken with my family history and how my parents accomplished in life. I was more interested in that. Plus, we were in boarding school so we weren’t really exposed to the Lebanese language.
Your father, Badih Ontra, was widely known as a very successful Lebanese-American businessman. What I find interesting is that your mother also stood as a female business pioneer in the United States of the mid 1900s.
As a daughter of these impressive parents, you witnessed the break of a main Lebanese cultural feature in gender-role inequality. Could you tell us how this impacted you and the way you raised your own children?
I was aware of the fact that my parents were individuals within a structure. Within my family of three siblings, we children could speak our minds, discuss them, and be respected, and we took that for granted. That was not typical in my generation. My dad encouraged us as did my mother.
At the time, children were to be taught and never to question. Not with my parents. They cared that we be respected and well-treated. They would not leave us home with just any domestic help. Mom looked for a small French Order to hire American staff who did not believe in corporal punishment. That was at a time when all schools practiced it.
Naturally, I raised my children on gender equality and to speak their minds. My husband Ted and I always included our children. This was not typical of our culture.
I was also determined to be home with them. The values of their generation did not have the integrity that my generation had. Drugs were rampant. I felt it important for parental guidance at home because of how the world was changing.
I kept working though, but from home. I tutored languages, never losing my business background, but utilizing it in a different way. I was active in the PTA to include culture, integrity and art in the schools. I edited books and helped with languages available in the schools. All this, I did it from home. We didn’t have computers so everything was by hand.
This helped my children learn hospitable manners that have served them all their lives
How important is culture and traditions for you? Why?
I can’t say it is important to me. It happened naturally, and it is part of me. I wanted my children to be comfortable and to socialize so they could integrate into society, and be part of everyday living.
The traditions of Easter, we would dye eggs and break them, in a family game, first thing on Easter morning. The one with the egg that wouldn’t crack was the winner.
All the family participated in this traditional game, even guests. That tradition remained even after I married. My husband Ted was always a winner in this.
We followed also my grandma’s traditions that were passed down to us. On Epiphany, she celebrated by putting a gift under the children’s beds. Celebrating The Three Kings was important in the family.
My son Gerard, who has 4 children, followed this tradition in his family until his kids were older.
Could you tell us what and how was the most important holiday celebrated at your parents’ home?
Christmas and Easter were the most important ones since they are in our religious traditions, and then the American celebration of Thanksgiving was added to them.
We did American traditions into our Lebanese culture. Mezza was always served before dinner, which I still do to this day.
Was it the same raising your own family?
Yes, it was the same, but we added to it the 4th of July, and our Lebanese food were always present, as well as the American one. For instance, we would have Baba Ghannouj, black olives, and lamb Kebabs beautifully presented along with American hamburgers and hot-dogs.
We added Petit-Fours. These are homemade baked cookies of the Lebanese French sub-culture cuisine. I learned them from my mother. Back in her time, Lebanese homes prepared them all the time when receiving guests. I wonder if it is still popular in Lebanon.
Do you have a favorite childhood memory where food was a main part?
It was just part of everyday living. Dad was very conscious of health foods in our family cuisine. He looked always for fresh natural ingredients for our home meals; a northern Lebanese cultural feature of his that we inherited.
For example, we had only whole-wheat breads at home, plus other vegetables that were not common at that time, like beets, which I know to be common in Lebanon.
My mother always shopped fresh food from Gristedes, and the fruit and fish markets in New York. For our meatless fasting on Fridays, we used to have fresh Tuna fish.
In what ways do you think today’s food is healthier or less healthy than when you were a child?
My Tante Marie had settled in Lebanon with her husband, and ran the Olive Groves of my grandmother. She would send us crates of olives and Lebanese pastries that were unavailable in NY. We were always so excited when her package arrived!
Having married a New Yorker, who himself was also born and raised in a Lebanese family, how culturally Lebanese did you raise your four children?
With a sense of pride. I explained that the Phoenicians were a source of pride for us. They contributed the written Alphabet and they were exemplary traders.
They invented the purple dye as there was no dye in the woven cloth. Dad was very knowledgeable about history.
My parents conveyed to us our history, good health habits and exercise, which I passed down to my children.
My father did not go by gender. He went by that we all have bodies, and all people, boys and girls, need to exercise to be well. He always shared the history of the Lebanese nation, and I, in turn, shared this pride of origin with my children.
At what point both your Lebanese and American cultures intermingled and blended?
Always. I never knew any different. My parents had pride in both, and so did I, still do.
What were the main Lebanese dishes you cooked for your family?
Do any of your children cook them for his/her family?
Yes, my children do cook the Lebanese cuisine, especially my daughter JoAnne who feels very connected to Lebanon and to the Lebanese people.
She’s very proud of her roots. You often hear her saying, “We Lebanese…” and she always prays for peace in Lebanon.
Home remedy of natural ingredients was, and still is, a cultural custom in Lebanon. Have any been transmitted to you by your parents? Can you tell us about it?
I know that Labneh was used at home for upset stomachs, but I was not so exposed to it as we did not use that in boarding school. I do remember though the jellies of roses my Tante Marie would send us from Lebanon. She used to make them herself from the roses she grew in her garden. When we were ill, we had these rose jellies on toast to eat.
She even sent us squares of natural olive oil soap, which I still look for to this day.
Do you have a particular Lebanese recipe you would like me to share on my blog?
Julienne string beans with cold-pressed virgin olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon, and thinly sliced raw onion.
You could make it a vegetarian dish for meatless meals. You could do it cold as a side-dish salad, or you could include ground lamb meatballs with a dash of cinnamon in the sauce. And salad always siding. I always had salads in the fridge.
Joyce, upon publishing my article “Celebrating Christmas the Lebanese Way”, your daughter Jen contacted me with a warming message from you saying, “Thank you. This is how I remember Lebanon!”
Please tell us more about it! What do you remember of Lebanon; memories conveyed to you by your parents, I believe, since you never visited the homeland?
I was always connected to Lebanon through the stories of my parents and my Tante Marie who, as I mentioned, had settled with her husband there. She was the head of the American Red Cross in Lebanon, in addition to running my grandmother’s olive groves. Her husband owned a hotel in the mountains, and she also helped him running it in the summers. She was very active and a gracious hostess.
As I said, I loved when she shipped us black olives, rose jellies, olive soaps, pickles, and Lebanese pastries. It made me feel part of the country. When in later years she visited us, I was delighted!
Lebanon is reading you now, Joyce, so are many Lebanese descendants around the world. Do you have something in particular you would like to say to our people in the homeland?
Everyone is in my prayers, and a part of my life because of what they have shared of deep faith, and for what they have done to maintain it, which has allowed Lebanon to prevail.
And to the young Lebanese descendants in the diaspora? Is there any feature of the Lebanese Cultural Heritage you would advise them to preserve? And why?
I don’t have to advise them. They are very proud of their origin. I know that from my children and grand-children. Integrity is always the most important, and mutual respect for other people who don’t think as we do. The joy of enjoying a good meal prepared with your own hands, and adapting because we have to work with what is available.
As for our Lebanese recipes, we should not substitute lamb meat with beef meat, as I have noticed in this part of the world. It is not the same in taste, and it is not traditionally Lebanese.
Joyce, it has been an absolute joy hosting you in my blog. Thank you for allowing us into your world and your family history. Your contribution is awesome and enlightening. God bless you!
Thank you. God bless you! My pleasure!
Easy Lebanese Recipes would like to thank JoAnne Therese for her contributed time and efforts in making possible this very interesting interview with her mother, and in providing the family photos.