Brookline Lunch is a Cambridge institution. The daytime, cash-only restaurant, beloved for its baklava pancakes and welcoming spirit, has been open since 1937, run since 1988 by Jamal and Manal Abu-Rubieh with their seven children, who grew up in the diner.
For the last month, alongside the usual images of za’atar egg bowls and daily specials, the restaurant’s Instagram feed has featured posts both personal and political. An olive tree, with a message celebrating the family’s Palestinian roots, pouring out its grief for Gaza. A post about threatening phone calls the Abu-Rubiehs received as a result. A fund-raiser for the Palestine Children’s Relief Foundation. Prayers for everyone directly affected by the violence, the return of Israeli hostages, the displaced Palestinians, and the Gazans who have been and will be killed.
As the Israel-Gaza war continues, some area restaurants, by choice and by default, have become part of the conversation. They are using their social media platforms to raise consciousness and donations, and their dining rooms serve as gathering spaces for those in search of community. (Nationally, Hospitality for Humanity — a Palestinian-led coalition of food and beverage professionals — has called for a cease-fire in Gaza and an end to Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, while asking supporters to divest from anything that promotes Israel. There have also been boycotts of restaurants supporting Israel or calling their food Israeli, which some consider cultural appropriation of Palestinian food.)
Local restaurants have often been quick to express support in moments of crisis, tragedy, and social reckoning, speaking up en masse for movements such as Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, #metoo, and LGBTQ+ rights. With this conflict — fraught, historically divisive — the social media landscape looks a little different. Those who take a public stance are more likely to have a personal connection to the situation.
“Knowing we should say something, we wanted to stay true to ourselves and show compassion to everyone affected by this,” said Mahmood Abu-Rubieh, the middle sibling at Brookline Lunch, who also works in public relations. “You don’t need to be Israeli or Palestinian to feel this. It’s grown into something much larger at this moment. It touches everyone some way or another. There is such a difficult conversation happening around whether you should post as a business or how you should post. Many people want you to make pancakes and leave it at that. But I think responsibility falls on our community to do more. In the restaurant world, we have a particular role to play — especially one that serves Palestinian-inspired food.”
At Mamaleh’s Delicatessen, which serves bagels and lox, pastrami on rye, and other Jewish deli staples, the owners felt similarly compelled to address the current moment. Half of the management team is Jewish, and the restaurant capitalizes on and celebrates Jewish culture. “This issue is so deeply challenging and also, in a way that nothing else before has been for us, so personal,” said co-owner Rachel Miller Munzer. Some staff members have family ties to Israel, and at least one employee lost a relative in the recent attacks. Antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise. What statement would support their workers and community, maintain a safe and comfortable space for their customers, and align with their core values, all at the same time?
“What are we trying to say here? We’re Jewish, and we’re a Jewish restaurant, and that’s OK. We’re not going to hide. We don’t have to take sides in this war. But we also don’t have to cower,” Munzer said. They also feel the responsibility of tikkun olam, the Jewish concept that calls upon people to work to repair the broken world.
The restaurant, which has branches in Cambridge, Brookline, and Boston, posted signs that read “Proudly Jewish” in their windows and printed out copies for anyone to take. “We have never been, nor will ever be a religious or political institution, but we are proudly Jewish,” they posted on Instagram, along with an image of the sign. “As the war in Israel and Gaza continues, antisemitism is on the rise worldwide, and we want to help combat it. The deli has been a place of community and comfort — welcoming to Jews and non-Jews alike. We aim to hold this central to our operation and to keep Jewish stories and culture alive through our food traditions. … We will continue to work for peace, safety, and respect for human life. We will always stand against the promotion of hate and the celebration of violence against human beings.”
Avi Shemtov, chef-owner of restaurants including the Chubby Chickpea, Hummus v’Hummus, and Simcha, serving what he calls “modern Israeli cuisine,” is “technically Israeli,” he said: He was raised in the United States and has an Israeli passport through his father. He notices when people who are usually vocal about causes have nothing to say right now. “I’ll always remember we weren’t important enough for them to ‘tarnish’ their brand,” he said.
He has been vocal in his support of Israel on his own social media, while trying to keep a “thin line” between his personal and business profiles. “I’m going to be unapologetically pro-Israel and use any platform I’ve built to say what I believe is right and say what I think we as Jewish people need to be saying,” he said. “I’m comfortable with folks who hate Israel choosing to separate from my businesses. I’m not comfortable if my messaging tells an impartial or Israeli-supporting Muslim or Christian that they’re not welcome. I don’t think it’s unfair for people to want freedom for Palestinians. I want to be welcoming to Muslim people, to Arab people. I’ve always been raised to believe that they are brothers and sisters.”
Then, sometimes it is not what you say but what you do. Sometimes being present is enough.
In Somerville, at Yafa Bakery & Cafe, owner Abdulla Awad takes a guest on a tour of the pastry case, where bundles of shredded kataifi dough with pistachios of every color and texture nestle in trays beside baklava fragrant with orange blossom water. There are 17 varieties of stuffed dates, chocolate-dipped doughnuts sprinkled with flower petals, snail-shaped bourek filled with spiced potato, sesame seed-studded loops of Jerusalem bread. “I grew up eating this, so that’s definitely my favorite,” Awad said, pointing to mamoul, date-filled cookies pressed in a mold, powdered sugar artfully applied to their patterned crevices. Most of the recipes at Yafa are specifically from Jerusalem; he is originally from Beit Safafa, a Palestinian neighborhood where his family has lived for generations. Bottles of olive oil from their groves shine green-gold on the shelves. This year, Awad said, Israeli settlers have prevented them from harvesting the fruit.
At Yafa Bakery & Cafe, every customer gets a small cup of chai. “You’ve walked into our house. My house is your house,” Awad said. “We are open to everyone. We offer love and kindness through what we have. Our food, our recipes, our culture, our service, our generosity: That is who we are. We try our best to carry on with peace and kindness, and hopefully we pray for peace in this world. This world is insane, but there is some goodness. I believe in that.”
In return, he said, customers of all faiths have shown his business love and support, lining up on weekends to buy baked goods, leaving rave reviews on Yelp, and sometimes just coming by to give a hug. “I guess it’s becoming a political statement to say you’re Palestinian. I don’t have to justify who we are. We can be who we are. We truly do it with love, with genuineness, with passion,” he said.
During this difficult time, restaurants have also become centers of community, safe spaces to gather — places like Lehrhaus, which calls itself a “Jewish tavern and house of learning,” and the Palestinian-owned Andala Coffee House alike.
Food can be healing, bringing people together, said Andala founder Sami Herbawi, who was born and raised in the Old City of Jerusalem. “The purpose of this coffee shop is for people to meet and feel at home, to feel welcome,” he says. “We are just basically a coffee shop trying to ease the pain on the people, Palestinians who have family in Gaza and have family suffering, and make them feel welcome here. I have nephews in Gaza. My heart goes out to everybody.” Right now, he says, work is helping to keep him sane, distracting him briefly from what is happening in his homeland.
“People lend their support and their prayers and thoughts, and they say we’re with you, our thoughts and prayers are with you. That means a lot to me. … I can’t cry anymore. I can’t sleep anymore. I see these horrible atrocities being committed. The only thing I can do is: People come and ask questions, and I help to answer as much as I can.”
Lehrhaus has also been a community refuge. On Oct. 9, after the attacks by Hamas, it opened its doors during the day, when it is usually closed. “The role of restaurants as gathering spaces and places where people can meet and connect deeply feels very important now,” said cofounder and director Rabbi Charlie Schwartz. “Jews right now, or the people I’m closest to, are feeling lonely and confused and I think afraid as well. Being able to gather as a community is very powerful. Maybe 50 to 60 people came through over the course of the day. We’ve seen an increase in the number of customers coming through the door ... which is a sign that people are really coming to spend time and be together in community.”
“Open for you, however you’re doing,” the restaurant posted on Instagram. Lehrhaus had planned to host its first Jewish Oktoberfest, with educational programming sponsored by the German Consulate in Boston. It turned the event into a fund-raiser, donating some of the proceeds to the organization IsraAID.
“If my grandparents had heard about an Oktoberfest reframed as a celebration of German-Jewish culture, sponsored by the German government, that is a reality they could not imagine happening. We are living in a reality that a generation or two ago felt like an impossibility,” Schwartz said. “We are framing it as hope that there are realities out there for Israelis and Palestinians that we can’t even imagine now.”