The church fair is a time-honored tradition on Long Island. The flashing lights of carnival rides, the rows upon rows of colorful plush toys tempting passers-by, the sausage and peppers, the cotton candy and the POP wristbands.
So when I got to St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Center in Woodbury’s fair back in September, I thought I knew what to expect.
I did not.
There were no carnival rides, no games of chance, except for a raffle or two to benefit the church or to win a trip on EgyptAir. And no sausage and pepper stands.
Instead there were canopies draped in colorful fabrics sheltering extended families sitting at tables over elaborate golden tea sets. There was a bazaar selling religious icons, more tea sets, spices and textiles. There were kids playing soccer on a mini-field. There was a set of three garage-size pyramids, sort of like a kid’s playhouse out in the backyard, offering historical tours. And inside the center’s multipurpose room, there was food. Egyptian food. Glorious food. Real food. Homemade food. Sweet food. Savory food. Ladies in the kitchen preparing more food. And crowds of people buying tickets for food, lining up for food, carrying heaping plates of food to big round tables where more people were eating food together and having a grand old time socializing in Arabic and English.
So I did the only reasonable thing. Got some food. And started learning about this vibrant, warm and welcoming community that—when it’s not fasting (and it is fasting a LOT)—is feasting on some of the most delicious food west of the Nile.
George Basaly, who reads liturgy at the church, gave me some quick background.
“Mark was one of the 70 apostles sent out to bring the message of Jesus to the world,” he tells me. “He went to Egypt and started the church there. So we are one of the apostolic churches, and Mark is the first patriarch. He also wrote one of the Gospels. That is why so many Coptic churches are named St. Mark.”
As I tuck into my okra with lamb and tomato sauce, and moussaka—baked eggplant with meat sauce—I notice how Middle Eastern and Greek the menu is. Falafel, stuffed grape leaves, lamb and chicken kebabs, shawarma. It makes sense; Coptic Christianity was born in Egypt 2,000 years ago at the crossroads of biblical time. But I want to know, and eat, more. By the time I leave the festival with my son, who stuffed himself with ghorayebah (butter cookies) while I was making new friends, I have scored an invite to a liturgy, a meeting with one of the priests and an invite to a holiday meal at the home of Veena Soliman, one of the pillars of the church.
When I return for a Wednesday morning liturgy in the lower church I follow the chanting to the service. Almost the entire liturgy is chanted in Coptic, the original language of Egypt. I am astonished to see close to 100 people of all ages. I had no idea the community of Coptics on Long Island was large enough to fill a church, much less on a weekday. But, as it turns out, there are around 450 families in this congregation and they fill the lower church every Wednesday and Friday and both the upper church (Coptic) and lower church (English and Arabic) every Sunday. There are an estimated 500,000 Egyptian Copts in the United States, many of them refugees from persecution they have faced as a religious minority in Egypt, where they make up 10 percent of the population. The major immigration wave came in the ’70s in the wake of changes to U.S. immigration policy, but there have been recent upticks following the upheaval of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s.
Wherever they go, Coptic Christians bring their church with them, as did many of those who populate this church when they migrated out from Queens. The church started in the ’70s, but it was in the late ’80s when critical mass and a land donation allowed them to construct a sprawling complex on six acres.
Coptic Christians tend to be very devout and dedicated; in many families, Sunday liturgies take precedence over kids’ sports, for example. But they have also cheerfully adapted to modern American life and open their doors to the many non-Egyptians who have become Coptic through marriage or inclination. It is hard to overstate how kind and friendly this congregation is. They are proud that Egypt took in Jesus, Mary and Joseph when they had to flee and that hospitality has become part of the religion’s DNA.
During the service, some women wear mantilla-like scarves throughout; others don them at particular moments. Some congregants stand, others sit. Despite the difference in language, there is much that anyone raised Roman Catholic would recognize, especially because on either side of the altar, there were two large screens that displayed simultaneous captions for the service in Coptic, English and Arabic. And the Lord’s Prayer is said in English.
The bread and wine are consecrated as in an Roman Catholic mass, but congregants receiving communion take off their shoes to go the Eucharist and take a sip of water from tiny silver shot glasses after.
At the end of the service the faithful approach the altar and come back with hunks of bread that they nibble on as they file out, many of them collecting in knots to catch up with friends and relations.
Abouna (Father) Joseph Loka, a former pharmacist who was ordained three years ago, fills me in on the significance of the bread. Among the symbolism is the round shape that represents the universe and the five holes pierced in it that represent the wounds of Christ on the cross.
“We bake several loaves of leavened bread, but only one of the loaves is selected—the most perfect one—whether we are two people or 1,000. The Holy Spirit transforms it to become the body and blood of Christ,” Abouna Joseph says. “The priest puts it directly in the mouth of the person, careful not to spill a crumb because it is so holy. Then we have sacramental wine mixed with water. After that we rinse with water to make sure it is all gone from the mouth. The rest of the loaves we share at the end of the liturgy so that now we have also broken bread together.”
Back when Veena Soliman invited me to her home, she said something intriguing. She said it was important to come when they were not fasting. It turns out that even when the food isn’t sacramental, it is an integral part of Coptic religious practice. When you count up the different fasting periods, they add up to a remarkable two-thirds of the year.
There are three-day fasts for Jonah (he of the whale), 55 days before Easter, 15 days for St. Mary and, depending on the year (Copts use the Julian calendar) there might be 15 or 70(!) for the Apostles.
But not all fasts are no food from sun-up to sun-down. Most are vegan: no animal products permitted, including butter and eggs. The 43-day Holy Nativity Fast begins around November 25 and ends with the Holy Nativity Feast on January 7, Coptic Christmas.
“When we fast for Christmas we are pescatarians, so we have a lot of fish and vegetables and we only use oil,” Veena tells me. “By the time it comes to the Christmas meal, we don’t want to see vegetables and we don’t want to see fish. And we make everything with butter.”
When I arrive at the spacious Soliman home in Deer Park, Mimi Metri, the wife of Veena’s maternal uncle, Albert Metri, is bustling in the kitchen with Veena, getting everything ready. Veena’s kids, Julianna, Justin and Jason, drift in and out of the kitchen, hovering over the food and asking who else is coming. Cousins and aunts and uncles pour in and Veena’s husband, Ayman, arrives and selects a bottle of wine. Finally Veena’s mother arrives with several dishes—she and the Metris and her other two brothers live on the same block in Hicksville, and the extended family means at least 50 at the Solimans’ for Christmas Eve dinner. On Christmas Day, Mimi and Albert will go to her family amid another 45 people.
Christmas Eve dinner follows midnight liturgy. Everyone’s appetite has been growing all evening, so the cooks leave everything ready to warm up and put on the table, family style.
There is a lot of laughter throughout the house, which is getting more full by the minute, but everyone is serious about the butter and about breaking fast. Among the seemingly dozens of dishes are goulesh: filo dough with cheese and butter; lamb consommé fragrant with garlic and butter that will drench fateh, layers of rice and toasted bread; a tower of perfectly rolled grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice; kobaba, a ground beef dish with cracked wheat and onions—“It traditionally has pine nuts, but one of the family has an allergy so we leave them out,” says Veena. And the crowning dish, the one everyone keeps telling me about is macaroni with béchamel, an incredibly creamy layered casserole. “I use half-and-half,” says Mimi. “A lot of people just use milk, but I like it creamier.” Other holiday dishes include leg of lamb, kofta (meatballs) and other kobeba.
The food is mouthwatering and everyone is hungry. But God comes first.
All rise around the table and clasp hands in prayer or lift palms to the heavens and bow heads. Ayman Soliman, at the head of the table, thanks God for everything, for the food, the family, the faith, the love that surrounds the table, for life. Everyone recites the “Our Father” as one voice. Then it is time to break that fast and celebrate. Together.