MAHIA NAHMIAS ET FILS WRIT TE N AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY BEN JA M I N P E I M
n a small warehouse tucked away in an industrial area of Yonkers, New York, Nahmias Et Fils is busy reviving a centuries-old North African Jewish tradition. They’re making Mahia (pronounced MAhia), an alcohol distilled from fermented figs. The company, made up of husband and wife team David 56, and Dorit, 50, set up shop in Yonkers, a city of 195,000 in Westchester County, just north of New York City, in 2011, and unleashed their first bottles of Mahia onto the market the following year. But a handful of years before, the couple never would’ve seen themselves in the distilling business. David had long worked as a computer software engineer, while Dorit was a prominent foreign exchange trader. But the 2008 economic crash and ensuing Great Recession swept both of their jobs away. The couple’s late start to the distilling industry, however, hasn’t daunted them. “You have to take risks in your life to achieve something,” David said. “This is just one more risk.” Originally from Morocco, David had long held a passion for Mahia, which he made at home as a hobby and gave away to friends for years. Working long hours in software development, he daydreamed of one day opening up a Mahia distillery. Searching for jobs in their respective fields proved fruitless after the financial crash, and the pair soon decided to turn David’s dream into reality. David took distillery classes at
the American Distilling Institute in Kentucky, the Koval Distillery in Chicago, and then they took out a small business loan before opening their doors. Although it was David’s first foray into the distilling business, he comes from a long line of Mahia makers. He was born to a Jewish family in southern Morocco—a small town called Taznakht—where his family made Mahia for generations. Morocco was home to a Jewish community for thousands of years. In the mid-twentieth century, it numbered over 250,000. But the last 60 years saw most of the country’s Jewish population leave the country, mostly for Israel, France, Canada, and the United States. David, for his part, left when he was 15. Morocco is a Muslim majority country, and historically Muslims were discouraged from making or consuming alcohol. So making Mahia was a primarily Jewish occupation. The drink was consumed by Jews and non-Jews alike, for celebrations and also to treat ailments, digestive issues and earaches being two examples, before the advent of modern medicine. Hence the name, which means “water of life” in Arabic. As the Jewish population left the country, traditional Mahiamaking faded.
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Published on Dec 14, 2017