Philly’s Middle Easterner immigrants 60 years ago
When Jimmy Tayoun died a couple of weeks ago, the newspaper obituaries noted his career as a reporter and as a restaurateur, his years spent in city council and the state House of Representatives, his time served in the pokey for political shenanigans and the weekly newspaper he published in recent years.
But when I think of Jimmy, I remember the Lebanese and Syrian folks in their little neighborhood in South Philly, more than 60 years ago, before Jimmoved the family restaurant up to Second and Chestnut in 1958 and made it big and fa- mous.
I don’t get to South Philly these days, and I know the neighborhood has changed. There’s a big new apartment building in the 900 block of Ellsworth Street.
Still on the corner of 10th and Ellsworth is St. Maron’s Syrian Catholic Church, named for a fourth century Syrian monk. It will celebrate its 125th anniversary next month.
I think the old Tayoun restaurant in the middle of the 900 block is now a dwelling. You’ll find his parents at that address in the 1910 Census, the spelling of their names mangled by census takers. They were in their 20s, operating a grocery. Nearby blocks were full of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants’ names.
By the 1950s, the building was a 52-seat restaurant, with Jim’s father, Sliman Tayoun, playing host and his mother, Nora, doing all the cooking. You could get a good Lebanese dinner for a couple of bucks, but you had to like lamb. (I never had the nerve to try the broiled lamb kidneys in garlic sauce.)
On some evenings, there would be Middle Easternmusic, with Bob Sarkasian playing clarinet and Ray Marijinian, I think, playing the oud, a manystringed instrument that in Lebanon was believed to sound best when plucked with an eagle feather. Jim’s brother Ed often played, though I forget what instrument.
Local girls did wiggly Middle Eastern dances. Sometimes, diners would get up and dance arm-in-arm in a line in the narrow aisle.
There was no roomfor waiters to get past the dancers, so they would join the line when they exited the kitchen and get off with their trays when they passed the right table.
It was fun to stop by Ellsworth Street on a warm, sunny afternoon. Men would be playing backgammon on house steps and arguing in Arabic. Some would be wearing a red felt bucket-like tarboosh on their heads. (Don’t call it a fez; that was Turkish or Egyptian.) Jim’s father would be in a chair on the sidewalk, discussing Middle Eastern politics with neighbors.
George Jacobs, the self-appointed poet laureate of the neighborhood, would come along and ask if you would like to hear his latest work. No use declining; he would recite anyway, in Arabic and English.
Back in Lebanon and Syria, there seemed always to be turmoil among Muslims and Christians of different kinds, plus Palestinians. But on Ellsworth Street, except for an occasional late night after-dinner argument over a last cup of rose tea in the Middle East Restaurant, everybody seemed to get along.
Jim Tayoun went on to be host of a big downtown restaurant and a political wheelerdealer. But when I think of him, I remember the tiny restaurant on Ellsworth Street.