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Kreplach and Collard Greens

The following is a transcript of Episode 142 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Monday, May 22nd, 2023.

We recently ran a pilot program here at Hartman that’s trying to support new growth in the work of Black-Jewish relations in this country, trying to stretch us all beyond nostalgia and political advocacy to actually interrogate the deeper narratives of identity in Black and Jewish communities. It was really hard work, and we learned a lot from it that will inform any work that we would continue to do in this space. 

One of the most interesting questions we faced in executing the program was ostensibly a side issue, not one of the things that we expected would derail or complicate the work, but something that ultimately became much more important than a lot of us expected, namely the question of what the participants would eat. 

Hartman programs are ordinarily all kosher. This is a gesture not only to the fact that we are a Jewish organization, but it’s a really important consideration for pluralism, for trying to build communities across difference, and for taking people’s commitments and convictions seriously. It’s inherently awkward for some people to be eating hot, freshly prepared food, and others to be fighting their way through the shrink wrap to get to their airplane chicken. Actually, in most intra-Jewish and interfaith spaces, it’s pretty easy to honor this commitment with certified kosher food for everyone. Kosher food’s far more ubiquitous than it once was, there’s variable price points, and a well-designed kosher menu can actually invisibilize the different identity choices that are all around the table. 

But here was the issue. The program was built around travel, and first, we took the participants to the Deep South, to Montgomery and Selma and Atlanta, and later on to Israel. A decision to travel to the South and to have exclusively kosher-catered food was not only logistically complicated, but it would have had the effect of de-emphasizing and devaluing Black-owned businesses and indeed, in some ways, Black food, which are essential elements of the very identities and communities that we sought to understand. It would have created even more of a hierarchy in the various identities in the group that were already implicit in a program convened and run by a Jewish organization. It would have missed part of the story, and people would have felt very bad.

Instead, and unlike every other program that we run at the Institute, on a number of occasions on that particular trip we patronized local establishments and several of our Jewish participants, among whom were folks who were white and some who were Black, some were Ashkenazi and some were Sephardic, those folks had to sit out and instead eat the kosher food that we provided. 

I don’t know whether that was the right choice, but it definitely felt right for this particular educational experience. After all, food like identity, is not neutral, and it’s not colorless, and it definitely shouldn’t be flavorless. 

So I’ll speak personally for a second. I have a big cooking hobby, which grew in part for me because it was a very useful hobby for our family, which needs to eat anyway, and because it’s such a different way of engaging with the world than my usual work of talking and writing. And in that hobby, I’ve toggled back and forth on the question of whether the work of creative food for people like me is complementary or just supplementary to my core work in trying to promote Jewish ideas and conversation about identities. 

Some of my colleagues here at Hartman who are scholars and teachers actually believe that food is just fuel. But our organization also kind of has a foodie culture, an organization on thought leadership, and I think that’s not a coincidence. To live deeply is to notice that which influences you and to use all your senses, the ones that are rooted in biology and the ones that are rooted in heritage. Really thinking about our food need not be a valuing of the material or the physical over the spiritual. It might be an essential variable in helping us achieve that rarest of feelings, the feeling of attunement. 

I’m sure our decision in Montgomery hurt some participants’ feelings and I’m sure we’re going to continue to try to figure it out if we continue in this line of work. But I do hope that it was understood as an educationally intentional decision, though, for the sake of all of our participants. 

What this anecdote should awaken, though, is not merely a conversation on food policies for a Jewish organization. It hints at something bigger, the big question of how we actually talk about the complexities of our identities in the presence of others, how we get to feel like our full selves when other people are trying to understand us or put us in boxes, how groups of people can take seriously the things that make them different from other groups, while not fixing those people into a narrative that they themselves wouldn’t recognize. 

I love the work of interfaith and intergroup. I really think pluralism is one of the most essential and least understood normative commitments created by the majority that could save all of us. But it’s actually quite terrifying and it’s really easy to screw up. Black and Jewish is just one site of this difficulty. They’re not antonyms. And in the midst of a growing recognition in this country that the relationships between quote-unquote the black community and quote-unquote the Jewish community are struggling, in the midst of that lives a significant population of individuals with identities that straddle and challenge the false binary line dividing between the two. 

Today, I want to weave these two stories. How food tells us who we are and what it means to lead an intersectional life with my guest. I’m honored to be hosting Michael Twitty, a culinary historian, a Jewish educator, an award-winning food writer, and this is just one item I picked off of his bio, the first revolutionary-in-residence at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. His newest book, which came out I believe last year, part memoir, part sociology textbook of the black Jewish experience, part theology of Jewish food and Jewish time, and part cookbook is called Kosher Soul. 

Michael, thanks for coming on the show today. Thanks for being in conversation with me. I guess I want to start really with a hard question. This book is so much about the complexity of imagining, at least for you and for many of your friends, Blackness and Jewishness as something separate, and at the same time, a critique of the naivete of imagining them as identical or together. And so the hard work is about figuring out how to bring people together. in which food is an essential element. So what is that work and what does it look like for you?

Michael: So I have a saying in the book, which I’m proud to say, you know, garnered the National Jewish Book Award Book of the Year. I’m very proud of that because, not because it’s about naches. It really is a matter of noting that our stories matter, that that journey matters, especially post-Kanye. 

I think one of the things that I noted, I was at the White House last Tuesday for the recognition of National Jewish American Heritage Month. And I brought it up and someone said, well, it was always, someone younger said, it was always, you know, iffy. And I said, no, you don’t understand. Not among the African-American, not among the generation that’s here now. They don’t really have as much of an awareness of those past conversations that those of us in Generation X have and before us. 

But the kind of forms of anti-blackness married with anti-Semitism and dancing back and forth that are present now, both within the younger generation, but also as we see in this current rise of white supremacy, is a different hybrid animal than we’ve ever experienced before. And one of the biggest issues is identity. How are you Black? How are you Jewish? How are you both? What does that mean? Oh, you’re more authentic. Oh, you’re not authentic. Oh, you’re a copycat. You know, people come at you, Yehuda, with these constant challenges. I’m telling you it’s there before they open their mouths. 

So I’ve asked the question, how do I show this Venn diagram? How do I articulate what it means to be in the middle of it? That there are parts of me that are completely accessible and there are parts of me that are not?

So I say in the book, as I said in the beginning, we are not antipodes. We’re not on two sides of the world because essentially the modern, and I use that term loosely, Western experience has put these two things, antisemitism and anti-Blackness, kind of in the same folder, same file. Of course, one is much older than the other in terms of Western thought, but they’ve grown together and braided with each other for a very long time. 

But then there’s also the idea of us both and I’m using my pronouns wisely, being these people of exile, people of diaspora, people whose stories have had to change to survive. That’s separate from any sort of ism or prejudice question. That’s just a fact. And the fact that we have often been in the same spaces at the same time. in more than one place in history and more than one continent. And what that means for the larger conversation. So yeah, I mean, this is what the work is. The work is, where am I on this Venn diagram and how do I fit in and how do I translate that experience to all parties involved?

Yehuda: So I appreciate the term Venn diagram here. So I’m gonna, I wanna push on that to ask the question of like, when are, I guess I’ll say, white Jews who wanna engage in this conversation meant to notice the Venn diagram and not notice the Venn diagram? And to ask that, I’m gonna quote from something that you cite from Shais Rishon, Rabbi Shais Rishon, also known as Ma Nishtana, a rabbi and activist. And the quote goes as follows: “Look, the most important thing about us Black Jews is not how we got here or why we’re here. It’s that we ask Jewish questions and make Jewish decisions and live Jewish lives Those are the things that people don’t want to address because it forces them to think of us as Jews, not Black Jews, Jews.” 

But at the same time part of the thrill of what you’re doing here in this book is laying bare the seriousness of a Black Jewish identity, that you’re asking us to also take that seriously. So I would love for you to talk a little bit about that tension because it might not be experienced as a tension for you, but it might be experienced as a tension for white Jewish readers who are seeking to be in dialogue with you.

Michael: And I think the interesting thing is that the white, if we can say that, the white Jewish world, has its own identity crisis.

Yehuda: Oh yeah.

Michael: Is Ashkenazi part of being European or is Ashkenazi some exiled Middle Eastern people who just happened to be in Europe?

Notice that in that conversation, you never have the dialogue which has been a part of African-American existence from the very beginning, which is, yeah, we don’t just look this way because we went North and we got cold. You know, that never seems to enter the equation. It reminds me of the moment when Henry Louis Gates had on Barbara Walters. And she says, I thought I was just Jewish. And not understanding that Jewish and her phenotype have nothing to do with each other. Like she just thought that everybody was, you know, and he had these endogamous relationships from time ago. And she was only like 25 or 20% Middle Eastern. And she thought I was, I’m like, no, I was screaming at the TV, saying, that that’s not the same thing. What you look like and your membership in the Jewish people is not, you know, equitable. 

I mean, it’s like everybody has this identity crisis. I mean, being Sephardi. Being Sephardi in America is very interesting because everywhere else, it’s this notion of, Sephardi means to be not European or at least not fully in the West world of color. 

Whereas in America, officially according to the census, I don’t know if it’s changed, but since the early 1900s people of Middle Eastern background can officially be considered Caucasian. Well, that’s not our conversation, but it is a conversation that makes it more complicated. You know, we have brown, Sephardic Jews who in America say, I’m white. But if you give them the wrong beard and the right head covering, and all of a sudden everybody’s looking at them. You get what I’m saying. These perceptions of racial difference. 

So for me, as an African American, I, and I use that term very proudly, I stand on that. I’m not just a Black American, I’m an African American. I really believe there’s this Du Boisian double consciousness in everything we do. W.B. Du Bois famously says that the double consciousness of the Negro is like one of the more, this is in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folk, is one of the hallmark elements of our identity. And he was right. We are part of these two worlds. 

In the same way, I think that Ashkenazi Jews in particular have grown and developed with Europe and yet have always been sort of outside the pale, literally and figuratively. And we have the same thing. And I think that’s exactly one of those connectors that in terms of the work of Black Jewish relations that has always been subtly acknowledged but never really spelled out. Never really spelled out. 

So yes, I think it’s important to recognize, you know, I come from a whole different legacy. It’s like, people will ask me in a very sincere way, tell me more about these communities. I’m just like, well, you realize that we’re talking about a mosaic and not an unbroken line. We’re talking, in other words, we’re talking about, I use the analogy of, okay, a mosaic, for example, was when I was in Israel the first time, and I saw a mosaic in the floor of a villa, Roman villa. You could tell that it was a mosaic of a floor showing a dinner. If I asked you to tell me every single pixel detail, you couldn’t. And it’s the same with our story. 

Shais is right. You know, it’s not, you know, we say Kaddish, we say Kiddush, we, you know, some of us live in communities and raise our children in such a way that we want them to be, you know, married a certain way, married Jewish. What does that mean? I mean, all of those decisions. 

I tell people all the time that, you know, from the time I wake up and say, modeh ani, the time I say the bedtime Shema, in between that, I got this hair, I walk outside, I deal with a society that doesn’t always make room for me. And my rabbi said to me point blank, he said, I give you special permission to have your ID on you at any point in time. It is not muktza for you because it’s a matter of saving your life. That was before we had all these public conversations about, he said to me point blank, you cannot be walking around any place in Shabbat without that ID, because it’s a matter of pikuach nefesh. And that is what it means to be Black and Jewish, if nothing else.

Yehuda: So it sounds like what you’re suggesting is that for white Jews trying to figure out, to understand, even those who are doing so empathetically or sympathetically with the right kind of curiosity, that number one, you’re arguing this is not a static identity, it’s a mosaic identity, and I guess also literally capital M Mosaic and lowercase M mosaic. 

But I think what you’re also pushing us is for white Jews to do this, as a means of understanding the other involves the self-interrogation of

Michael: Right.

Yehuda: race, class, culture, and all of the other influences that have shaped white Ashkenazi Jewish identity, as opposed to the, like, making normative my own identity and then trying to figure out why someone who doesn’t look like me is Jewish or how they’re Jewish, right?

Michael: Couldn’t have said it better. I mean, there is an image from The Wonders of America by Joselit, it’s about the building and making of American Jewish culture. And she doesn’t shy away from the fact that racialization has played a big part of this. And there’s some kind of like, ad or meme or something towards the end of the book. And the words are, it’s a black man who looked kinda like Samuel L. Jackson. And it says, matza, that’s a big ass cracker. 

Well, you know, Americans get the double entendre. But is it really? What does that mean? When people think of Jews as whitest of the white, that’s certainly not a understanding that comes from pre-1950 America. That’s definitely post-Levittown. And so where do you fit on this and how much are you willing to deconstruct it, for the sake of Jewish integrity and peoplehood and also for the sake of pluralism?

One of the lenses that I try to use to interrogate all of this, I’m sure you’ll have your own questions, is about food. Because you know, it’s a cliche to say food brings us together. It doesn’t always. But food has the potential, if we have the right meaning and consciousness to really help us do that work.

Yehuda: Great, so I do have questions about food, but I wanna stay on America for a second, because you brought us to America in a powerful way, and I think that’s really important. 

Michael: Okay.

Yehuda: One of the areas where I’ve seen really significant breakdown in intergroup and interfaith work is on America, which is oftentimes ironically invisibilized by Americans, especially we’re talking about Jewishness and America, as though it’s like a landscape in which this is being played out, as opposed to an essential driver, about how Jews are the way they are in America. 

It’s like we happen to be Jewish and this happens to be a diaspora, as opposed to noticing that this place is having a huge effect on defining who we are and the way we are. And one of the places where I’ve seen real breakdown in our programs and in elsewhere is precisely on the question of at-homeness, which is a very, in our particular program, for instance, we talk a lot at Hartman about the way in which in the 20th century, the great shift by the second half of the 20th century for the vast majority of the Jewish people is that our people went from going from no homes to really two homes, the American Jewish story and Israel. And at homeness is a huge part of our story. 

For African Americans, for many Black Americans who are not just African Americans, they went from home to no homes. And do not experience America as the place of at-homeness. And it feels a little bit like this, the internal question of white Jews and black Jews, oftentimes seems to hinge on whether America is the vehicle for our arrival or the site of our dispossession. I wonder if you could reflect on that a little bit.

Michael: Yes! For me, for me, I think, when some, some Black folks in America of different backgrounds, not just African-American, it could be African-American, it could be Caribbean, look askance at me and people like me, it’s because they’re noticing my at-homeness as a Jew in America.

I mean, I understand that this place has made room, we’re not talking about exceptionalism. We’re talking about the fact that between the American ideal and the fact that Jews as a whole have worked that ideal, has made America, and by extension Canada, into places that have made more room for us than any place else with exception of Medinat Yisrael, right? 

So I understand that, it almost feels like at times an unspoken envy. Okay? Because being in the Black church, while very respectable, has never given Black people a feeling of that homeness with the general society. But as an American Jew, I mean, hell, I went to the White House, you know, and there were other people of color there, and it was this official recognition. They’ve never been to the White House for anything comparable. I’ve never been to the White House, period, till the last year. I’m a native Washingtonian. 

But I guess you know what I’m saying. As a Jew, I feel that at home that at home-ness. Whereas an African-American I don’t. I mean, I live in the American South. I am a Southerner, that’s my heritage. And even that has been, you know, it’s almost, it’s the same thing as when I see the younger generation of American Jews, you know, really hone in on being Ashkenazi or being of Eastern European heritage. To do so, for some Jews, is like anathema. How dare you emphasize secular Yiddishkeit and Yiddish, because that’s the language and the place of our oppression. And it’s like, wait a minute, that’s also the crucible of Ashkenazi identity. 

In the same way that for me, the South and the Caribbean and Black Latin America is the crucible for Black New World diaspora. You know? So those conversations to me are very powerful and very fascinating because there really is no real good, there’s no real answer to any of them. But the fact that you find yourself at that crossroads and that place of self-examination, I mean, in other words, what I said earlier was, in one sentence, I understand the privilege that I have as an American Jew, that I wouldn’t have especially if I was an American Black person who was Muslim. That people think twice about some of their behaviors, seeing me in a kippah or a black hat or what have you, versus the way that my cousins, in a larger sense, get treated, say for example, in a city like Philadelphia, where there is a large Sunni Muslim black population. But they get harassed by the cops, especially, not just because they’re Black, but because they’re Muslims. 

And the fact that the Black church has had this crisis in the same way that Catholic churches that have a majority Latino population have had a similar crisis. This place has been a rootstock of our culture, but at the same time, is it really helping us to keep our roots in this home? And both of those institutions they’re hemorrhaging people because it’s not doing that work. 

Now we as Jews, the funny thing about it is we go in and out of institutional Jewish life, depending upon what it can do for us. And also because it’s, you know, the life cycle forces us to, but also, apart from the life cycle and social need, becomes a feeling of commitment, a feeling of belonging. I promise you that a lot of people who live outside of that world don’t think about it that way, until you do.

Yehuda: Yeah, I would say we not only go in and out of institutional life, but I would argue, maybe this is for another time, I think many of us as Jews have the ability, maybe it’s a luxury, maybe it’s a survival tool, of going in and out of our Americanness. Because I want to belong to it. Nobody better tell me that I’m not American enough. 

And I’ll give you my, I’ll give you all of my reasons why I get to claim this place. And at the same time, I want to also retreat to the sense that it’s a diaspora and I’m a little bit other and I’m a critic of the society and I, you know, don’t really have my bags packed but I kind of know where they are. 

So we have that dance too and I suspect that that’s even, it has a different layer and level when it comes to African Americans in part because of the conditions by which they were brought to this country,

Michael: Yes.

Yehuda: And the inability to think in terms of the same way about what it would look like to leave. 

Let me ask you about this also. So my wife is Sephardic. Her family is from Tunisia, first Libya, and, on one side, and then Iraq on the other side. And it’s really important to me, because of that heritage, even though my wife basically traveled into kind of white Ashkenazi orthodoxy from about age 17, and that’s kind of where she did all of her Jewish education, the communities in which we live, it’s really important to us to preserve aspects of our Sephardic culture, mostly through food, but increasingly, like my kids voluntarily joined the Sephardic communion at school, and I couldn’t believe it, it’s just like 20 kids, we were so happy for this just small little gesture. They should know how to daven in both idioms, right, at minimum, at least two. 

I’m wondering what, from the standpoint of Jewish peoplehood, right, a good Jewish peoplehood should be able to kind of know and speak the rhythms, the history, the nostalgia of all other Jews. That means for me as an Eastern European Ashkenazi American Jewish immigrant from the beginning of the 20th century, the Black Jewish experience of this country is supposed to be part of my Jewishness.

Michael: That’s right.

Yehuda: Though meanwhile, as a white America, I‘m also supposed to take some ownership of, that the things that I value about this country put me on the oppressor’s side. So how are we supposed to think about this? How are we supposed to kind of absorb the complexity of the African American Jewish experience, those of us who are not African American, into our Jewishness? What are we supposed to do?

Michael: That’s a brilliant question. Well, first thing is first is that, I’m very diasporically minded and I really do believe that the buffet, not just the food, but the cultural and spiritual intellectual buffet of what it means to be Jewish or what it means to be Black, of African descent. We already do it. You know, we are Celia Cruz and Pele and Tito Puente, and we’re also Toussaint Louverture, and we’re also, you know, the Black church and Vodou and Candomble, but also the Nation of Islam, but also the Black Humanist Movement, but also, you know, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. All the cultural, religious, musical, spiritual, artistic, intellectual diversity. 

But acknowledging that the stories are very similar, right? People were brought over from the transatlantic slave trade. They negotiated their freedom. They fought for their freedom. They fought to be part of a society, blah. Jewishness. There are elements, I call myself Afro-Ashka-phardi for a reason. Because I’m a part of all that. 

But I’m gonna flip this question on you and say, okay, someone could legitimately say to me, you know, Sir, you are in essence in community with people who don’t look like you, who don’t have, some of whom, whether you like it or not, whether they like it or not, may not share your interests, your worldview, or your empathy. 

And I try to tell white southerners all the time, one woman wrote me this scalding, stupid letter talking about how she’s from Texas and she understood all this stuff, but I’m being divisive. I’m like, no, no, baby, I’m not being divisive. I’m saying, welcome to the family reunion. Welcome to the cookout, you’re late. 

But I know that we have influenced you and I know you’ve influenced us. But what I’m saying is the people holding the banner are us. You are in our cookout. No, we’re not your guests. We’re not your permanent guests. And you know, I know the white southerner, much like the Brazilian or Cuban, cannot exist without Africa, cannot exist without the African heritage. So to me as an American Jew, there is no America without that story as well. Maybe not the same extent as if you grew up in New Orleans or Alabama or Texas or Georgia. versus someplace else. But that’s a part of you. 

So to the extent that, you know, I mean, every synagogue there is somebody with a Sox or a Yankees kippa, or, you know, it’s like, okay. You look at that and someone going, okay, is that supposed to be funny or cute? No, that is a signifier of this is home. I am an American and a Jew both in the street and the shul. 

At the same time, I asked the white southerners, go back to that conversation, to quietly, subtly, and sincerely interrogate their own issues. That’s what I did with the Paula Deen letter many years ago. It wasn’t a takedown. You know, we southern gentlemen don’t take down our ladies. But the point was to say, Hey Paula, I need you to really look at yourself as a benefactor of this cultural and culinary heritage that has definitely been impacted by Black people, including the very people she worked with. So I’m saying the same thing to you, which is, no, I think engaging in elements of Black Jewish life and Black Jewish community folks and taking those things on is so important. 

I saw a piece by someone who I admire and respect, that said, you know, white Jews shouldn’t sing Go Down Moses at the Seder. And I vehemently disagreed. I said this comes from an era in American Jewish life when Jews who are coming out from under the Tsar, are seeing a ready and fast political culture connection with themselves, and the oppressions going on in America and want to change them. I mean, I am the first person to say, uh-uh, with appropriation, but that’s not appropriation. Yetziyat Mitzrayim was a gift to the entire human race. And whatever the human race gave back to that narrative is a gift to Am Yisrael. This is a call and response. This isn’t a take.

And so I want people to think more in those terms. When we are creating conversation and when we are making space for new thoughts and new life and new bonds and bounds of brotherhood and sisterhood, and also acknowledging each other as family, as mishpoche, that is not exploitation. It is an act of understanding our common humanity and the beauty of yachadut.

Yachadut is often read as this exclusionary people living in their corner. When the reality is, is that yachadut and Torah have, in their inflorescence, the idea is to benefit all of humanity. Because your Adam and my Adam are not two different Adams. Your Chava and my Chava are not two different Chavas.

So that’s how I feel about that. I think that was a beautiful, I think that was a brilliant question. I’ve never been asked a better question.

Yehuda: Mmm, that’s pretty good.

Michael: In regards to Kosher soul and in regards to what I’m doing. And what we’re both thinking about in our professional lives, which is, you know, how do we exist in all of these worlds at once in a respectful and ethical and modern moral way?

Yehuda: That was beautifully said. I appreciate that you use the example of Go Down Moses and the spirituals because I will tell you personally, you know, I grew up on spirituals at the Seder and it’s like a big part of my upbringing. I don’t know why. I think it was my uncle, it was probably my uncle, my uncle loved to sing. My uncle, bless his memory, passed away. He loved to sing and had a deep voice and he sang these spirituals and it was amazing. 

And then in the last few years we started asking and our kids, too, started asking like, wow, are we engaging in a cultural appropriation? And I felt like a great question, an important question about how to be respectful. And then the other hand felt like, wait a second, are we going to say our people that the story of the Exodus, which has carried us through millennia, does not, it doesn’t live in the story of African American Jews and their stories. 

Like, well, I can’t now can I not sing Ladino songs that some Jews sang? 

Michael: Right.

Yehuda: Do I not sing Yiddish songs because my family may have once been Yiddish speakers and are now not? Does it involve rejecting the legitimacy of this as an interpretation of the Exodus? And I think where I kind of settled on was, I do think white Jews can sing the spirituals with reverence the same way we sing the rest of the songs at the Seder, but only if we’re also willing at the Seder to talk about things like mass incarceration.

Michael: Yes.

Yehuda: Meaning, we can’t use it merely as a metaphor to invoke our own stories of freedom and redemption. It has to be a mechanism for us to open up the portals of our own empathy to see the ways in which the legacies of slavery persist and the opportunities to do the work of emancipation in the world.

Michael: Right, and this is what I demand of, when I, you know, I often have to be a translator, not by choice, of Jewish realities to those African Americans who are unfamiliar with Jewish life. I have to let everybody know that there are a large number of African Americans, particularly of a certain generation, especially the people who were part of the great migration, both to the cities and to the North Midwest and West, very familiar with many elements of Jewish life and community. 

It’s not uncommon to hear the story from the latter part of the Boomer generation and earlier to middle part of the Generation X generation, to say that one of the first integrated gatherings they ever went to was a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. That’s not uncommon. Among other narratives, right? That we have too many to talk about. 

But I think one of the things that I have to do is translate that for Black folks, like there’s this common theme of everybody European is white and therefore, like no, no, no, no, no. I got into a big fight on social media a week ago about Italians. And I said, I didn’t say that people couldn’t claim that on paper, but the way society treated Ashkenazi Jews, Italians, Greeks, and others, was not what was on paper. Not at all, not at all. 

And I think this is important because I think there are a lot of people in the black community in America who really don’t understand what Ashkenazi Jews in particular mean by, I’m oppressed, I am other. And I have to break it down to them. I said, okay, I get you, but I’m not speaking for people. I was talking about things that I have seen, things that I have read, ways I’ve seen people in my community as a Jew treated, that if it was done to you, you’d be like, that’s racist as hell.

Yehuda: Yeah, yeah.

Michael: And I have to translate that, but also translate that, I talk in the book about how Yiddish and AAVE have a weird kind of connection because they’re both of, but not of those exile languages and exile culture. And I know, I love absorbing elements of all of it because I think that when you have been displaced and you have been disturbed of your moorings as much as both diasporas have, why not celebrate the Baba Sali and Lubavitcher Rebbe at the same time? Why not honor Malcolm, Martin, Marcus, and Mandela? I mean, I love that all of that comes together at my Shabbos table, in my home, the way I curate my life. 

And of course, the food is a big part of that. When people sit down to the West African brisket or they have like the parve, you know, peach noodle kugel or the, or you know, whatever, I’m telling them a story about how and where I enter. But I’m also gonna have the carrots with the harissa and tahini and, and because I became Jewish through a Sephardic community, I really embrace it. That’s what I know. 

But I also grew up in a world that was predominantly Ashkenazi. So, there’s that. And then my DNA is like, oh yeah, Michael Twitty, you have all these cousins who have four Jewish grandparents, and they’re all from Ukraine. You know, I think that at some point, Yehuda, we have to look at ourselves and enjoy this human journey that we’ve been given a short time to participate in.

Yehuda: You know what, it’s wild to me that it’s never surprising to me that people are racist. I’m sure in my lifetime,

Michael: Right.

Yehuda: I’ve said racist things, thought racist things. I think we’ve all yielded this unbelievable legacy that we’re still trying to understand about ourselves and about humanity that we can’t disentangle. 

But what’s amazing to me about your description of experiencing racism in Jewish spaces is that we really, and I don’t think Jews are better than anybody else, I really don’t, but the tool of Jewish peoplehood, if you believe in it, if you actually understand it, is one of the most radical ideas at our disposal. The notion that our connectivity with other Jews transcends race, geography, ethnicity, time, all these things. It’s such a radical idea, and yet it’s become neutered to mean basically a secular commitment to some pareve kind of continuity, some kind of respectability politics. 

In many ways it’s devastating because we actually have the ideological technology to actually understand what it means to live across boundaries. We really should be better at this.

Michael: Yes, and deconstructing, that system is not our system. And yet you go into the religious world, you have people who have embraced this current wave of nonsense. And you go into the secular world and people say, perfect example. It was at a conference. It was an ethno-botanist conference. Okay, that’s wild.

Yehuda: All right.

Michael: And there was, one of many Jews there and I said, you know, good morning, how are you? Shalom aleichem. And I said, I quoted the Lubavitcher Rabbi and he says, every Jew should greet every other Jew with joy. And he got kind of pissy with me and was like, kind of like, no, you’re being ethnically particularistic. You’re being close. I’m like, no. I said, if you look like me, that shalom aleichem, that greeting, that hug, that handshake is everything because it means you’re a mishpocheh. It means that I am recognizing all parts of you. 

Hi, what’s up? It’s just, it’s no different than when I pass on the brother in the street and we nod at each other. What’s going on, man? What’s going on? How you doing? We may never seen each other again in this life, but we have acknowledged each other’s humanity. And he thought of it just being as being the sort of like, I, you know, I don’t mess with that, with that hardcore Jewish stuff. 

It’s not hardcore Jewish stuff. It’s exactly what you said, which is this bridge.

Yehuda: Yeah, tools of relationship.

Michael: Tools of relationship. And I told him, I said, I am not being religiously or whatever chauvinist. I’m simply saying that that smile, that handshake, that hug matters. If nothing else, that stuff matters to me.

Yehuda: Yeah, and you allude to this early in the book when you describe kosher and soul as quasi-ethnic terms. And it felt to me you were doing that exact dance of, these signal attachment across difference, but it doesn’t have to mean ethnic superiority, ethnocentrism.

Michael: Right.

Yehuda: One of the heartbreaking sections of this book that I read a couple of times was about the ways in which southern Jewish food is heavily influenced by Black culture because of Black cooks in southern Jewish homes. 

Can you reflect a little bit on that? Because that feels to me like one of these places where if I had grown up with that heritage, it might feel to me as though what felt like now Jewish food, because those are the foods you’re eating on Passover and on Shabbat, are then laced with something that I have to do teshuvah for, that I have to repent for. So it felt very heavy to think about what it means.

It’s easy for me in the Northeast to read your cookbook and be like, alright kids, for Shabbat we’re having red beans and rice. Michael Twitty said it’s not appropriation. It’s gonna be delicious, I promise.

That’s very different if it was actually part of my heritage because it was actually born in the racism that would have pervaded my household.

Michael: Well, it’s complicated because, you know, only a certain amount of Jews were part of the slavocracy. And when people use these big numbers like 75%, I’ve often heard them transpose the 75% to say, 75% of all slaveholders were Jews which is nonsense. 

But to the extent that 75% of all Southern Jews in that period had some connection to enslavement. Well, what does that mean? 

That does not mean everybody had a big plantation. It could mean that one or two enslaved people worked in a household. And for many of those households, especially in Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, I guarantee you with my life that many of those people were their relatives. Yeah. 

So, the numbers of Black people in the Register of Free Negroes in all three of those cities who have the last name Cohen or Levi or a Spanish Portuguese name is a lot. Most of the cooking we’re talking about comes from after slavery as Jewish immigrants come in through Galveston, they make their way to Atlanta, Montgomery, Memphis, New Orleans, and other Southern cities, right?
And they’re creating this food, which ultimately began during the earlier period, but it’s continued. And what’s interesting is that I really don’t call that food appropriation because it was essentially made by and with Black people for Jewish families. It wasn’t like, you know, Black folks who were not Jewish and who were Christian or whatever, had no connection to kishke. It didn’t translate to them. You know, very few foods, like kugel just barely makes Mama Dip’s cookbook. But it’s because it’s the community cookbook. She’s like, well, I made this for some Jews. It tasted pretty good. So why don’t you guys try it?

Michael: But like, matzah ball gumbo doesn’t translate, even though it well could. It’s no different than, you know, Jamaican stews with dumplings, or fufu in Africa. It really, I mean, most times when I have had friends, family, cousins who are not Jewish to my home or they’ve been in an event, they’re like, oh, this matzo ball soup tastes pretty good, I didn’t know what to expect. 

And of course, and I said in the book, there’s that time I was at that dinner and all the Black folks smile and they’re happy because they didn’t know what Jewish food was. And they said, oh, it’s chicken. Yes, it’s chicken. That’s exactly right. Another bonding connection. 

For me, I think one of the reasons why the cuisine of Southern Jewish families has in many ways, become endangered, is because there are people who, they’re not keen with acknowledging those Southern roots because of that fraught connection. But also as the South has its, like, I guess its last run, and not being a lost cause, it has not been as friendly. 

So once upon a time, these folks would have stayed and had children and raised families, not just in Atlanta or in Memphis or New Orleans, but outside of them. And now as that becomes even more problematic, so goes the cuisine. 

But you know, one can rest assured knowing that whatever recipes were innovated from 1880 onward, they were created with a specific notion of Americanizing the Jewish family through a Black lens, as opposed to what happens across the tracks, where Black people are cooking for avid white supremacists who don’t give a damn about exploiting them. 

And it’s not to say that there wasn’t exploitation and racism within the Jewish community. You know, one time, famously, I was at an event talking about Jewish food in the South of New York. It was packed and there was a group of ladies who came in. I called them the Halyamushkas. And the Halyamushkas all sat down in a little nice little row, sheitels and pearls ready and the Hayamushkas were upset because the conversation around Jewish food in the South didn’t sound Jewish enough. 

To which one woman who was the mother of one of the panelists, who was quite embarrassed, I should say, gets up and says, well, I said to the response, you guys care more about one Jew randomly having ham on matzah on Yom Kippur than you do the fact that Jews lived alongside slavery and segregation this whole period, and some benefited from those institutions. To which the woman who, the mother of the panelists, pops up and goes, but you don’t understand, we treated them like family.

And her family had been in Mississippi, by the way, since the 1830s, so you know, you know what she means. She means that they had enslaved people and then, had people working for them after enslavement, but they were like family. So, we took them to the doctor when they, oh God. Yes, I’m sure you have these flashes of humanity with these people, but it did not mean that they could walk in your front door. It didn’t mean that you’d be thrilled if their children dated your children. I mean, all the above. 

And so the room went into a tizzy, man, because they didn’t know how to handle, this was not a New York conversation. And it wasn’t a conversation that I think that people in the room were ready for. 

But on the other side of it, I think the more heartbreaking element is that people don’t see all of these vast connections and moments of inspiration. You know, Strange Fruit was written by a Jewish man, but it was sung by Billie Holiday. And hip hop would not be hip hop without the pairing of Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. We have all of these incidences where, I think about the famous picture of Gloria Steinem, and I forget the name of the sister who, I’ll upload her name at a Seder in Nashville, who stands next to her, fist raised. A lot of these, I think about Harvey Milk and Sylvester, you know, in terms of queer liberation. And I’m just constantly going, it’s always us saving the damn world. It’s Independence Day, who is it? It’s Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum.

Any other time they hate us, right? But when they want us to save the world, they know who to call, the Black and the Jew, to save the damn world, so they can go back to business as usual.

Yehuda: Michael, there’s something that I hear in your voice now and in the book that, for all of the complexity and all of the pain and all of the history that you’re talking about here, there’s something also that feels optimistic about what you’re doing and what you’re trying to do. 

And I couldn’t help but think that maybe it’s because of the food. Maybe it’s because the food is, literally and figuratively, our willingness to bring something to the table. The food connotes, it’s the stuff, it’s such a powerful social lubricant. I don’t know, is it, do you think it’s unfair for me to characterize it as optimistic? Because there’s something, there’s something really uplifting about what you’re doing here.

Michael: I think the humor is endemic. I mean, I come from Blacks, gays, and Jews. I come from three people who have used satire and irony to our advantage. and it has helped us survive. We are natural storytellers, we are entertainers, and we are tricksters. Sorry, anti-Semites, homophobes, and anti-Black people. I’m telling you, you know what? You know us better than you know us. Because we’ve had to do this to survive your world. Sorry, I mean, it’s a fact. 

But that tricksterism isn’t the best way possible. It’s, you know, the ways that we have gone around the boundaries and borders to create a world that was so much bigger with so many more opportunities. I think also, the way I write, a friend of mine counseled me to not write a dissertation, but to write as if somebody has come and sat down at my kitchen table and I’m doing mise en place, I’m doing prep work. As if I’ve just handed you an apple and said, Yehuda, I need you to cut and carve this cut apple, and next we’re gonna do this, and in the meanwhile, Let’s talk about ABC and D and E. 

I write that way because I want people to understand that in the homes and in those spaces of people who are traditionally oppressed and marginalized, that the kitchen table isn’t, you know, it is one of the hardcore issues of surviving this world and surviving other people. So that’s a part of it. It’s not just the end result, the community created by nourishing and sharing the food. It’s also how we can get the food to the table in the first place. What are we gonna serve? And what is that, what is what we serve? What stories does it tell about us?

Yehuda: Last question for you, which is, you talked earlier about, you know, I’m not a guest at your party, and it’s more like it’s my cookout, and you’ve showed up at it. Maybe given what we talked about today, maybe Jewish peoplehood is and needs the potluck. That’s what we’re basically talking about. A potluck, right? We all show up,

Michael: There you are!

Yehuda: We’re showing up with something in a casserole dish or something else, and then we put it all out there and that’s what we’re going to eat. So I’m going to claim, what I’m bringing to that potluck is what you described as your favorite Jewish food, and this is why I know we’re related. It’s my favorite Jewish food too. Kasha varnishkes, the all-time best. But it’s got to really have schmaltz in it. You said schmaltz or butter. 

Michael: Absolutely.

Yehuda: You said schmaltz or butter, and I was like, no, it’s definitely schmaltz.

Michael: I’m just making room for the vegans and the vegetarians.

Yehuda: Yeah, okay, that’s fair. You have a lot of recipes in here, but what’s the one emblematic dish, the thing that you would say, this is Michael Twitty showing up at a potluck?

Michael: Kosher soul rolls.

Yehuda: Kosher soul rolls.

Michael: I mean, that’s what I made for Andrew Zimmerman the first time I was on TV with him on Bizarre Foods. You know, it’s like, oh yeah, it’s Black, it’s Jewish. We both love Chinese food. Spring rolls can contain anything. Anybody who’s been to Disney can tell you that. 

By the way, for those who are listening, Kosher soul rolls are collard greens and pastrami in a spring roll. You’re going, oh my God, I need the recipe. Buy the book.

Yehuda: Buy the book.

Michael: Like it’s American. 

And like, the way you began the conversation with your intro. I just want to remind everybody that there are problems, there are issues, and I don’t buy into jingoism or exceptionalism. I just know this much. We have a common agreed goal of multiculturalism and pluralism, and we are lucky to have that. 

Nobody, not one person, even the people who don’t like us, is immune from the happy contamination, which is to be American. In fact, if you are not taking advantage of all of the blessings and fruits of this place, you are wasting your Americanness. American is not a monogram, it’s not a monoculture, it’s not monolingual, it’s none of those things. I mean, all of that adds up to mononucleosis, if you ask me. 

But the bottom line is that, you know, by being diverse, I’m so sorry. You don’t even have to be from, you don’t even have to be from like PS whatever in Manhattan to understand for good or for ill, this place is an extraordinary place. You can meet the entire world in this country. You can go into worlds you’ve never even dreamed of, that people, hundreds of years ago, never would have been able to conceive of. 

And much of that work has been done by African-Americans, American Jews, and the people like me in between.

And I think that when I talked about the Kosher soul rolls, I’m just like, you can walk with it. Cause you know, those of us who have been exiled, we ain’t got time.

Yehuda: That’s right.

Michael: We gotta keep walking. We gotta eat and keep walking. Forget what Jackie Mason said. We have to keep eating, keep walking. It’s not really eating. We’re walking. That’s okay, but we’re still noshing. It’s all right. But the bottom line is that the very fact that we, when we learn to respect each other, learn from each other and be a part of each other’s worlds, that’s when those happy moments occur. And we can thank God we’re Americans.

Yehuda: Well, thank you so much to all of you for listening to our show and special thanks to my guest today, Michael Twitty. The book, Kosher Soul, can be found everywhere. 

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs as Silversound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon, and Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative. Our music comes from Socalled. 

Transcripts of our show are now available from our website, typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas of what to cover in future episodes. So if you have a topic you’d like to hear about or comments on this episode, you can write to us at [email protected]

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