Philly’s Mid­dle Easterner im­mi­grants 60 years ago

The Review - - Opinion - Jim Smart Of All Things Visit colum­nist Jim Smart’s web­site at jamess­mart­sphiladel­phia.com.

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.

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