By Charlotte Rouchouze
Michael Twitty’s second book, entitled “Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an American Jew,” recent recipient of the National Jewish Book Award’s 2022 Jewish Book of the Year, immerses us in the understudied subject of Black Jewishness. This is a topic that speaks to Twitty’s own experience as a Black American Jew and follows up on his first book that explored his African American identity and genealogy.
Twitty’s books are hard to define and defy genre in a way that perhaps reflects their subject matter about complex identity crossings. They are scholarly but personal and, at times, casual in tone; they roam between history, autobiography, critical theory and cookbook, in a style that reminds me of the old literary tradition of publishing lengthy correspondences that ping ponged between the personal and the philosophical. While there are admittedly times when reading Twitty’s books that I wonder where we are headed, or, for that matter, where we are, I have found that if you just buckle in and follow his lead, you will be rewarded. The sheer amount of knowledge about Jewish and African American history that listening in will give you makes it worth the ride.
In “Koshersoul,” Twitty documents conversations with a range of Jews of Color including Marc Steiner, Tony Westbrook, Shais Rishon (who goes by the name MaNishtana on social media) and others. He goes about posing the question of what it means to be a Black American Jew and reflects on the wide range of overlaps between Jewishness and Blackness, as well as the little known history of the cultural interactions between the two. It turns out that Black Jews are not only a product of recent conversion but have their own rich and complex history, and one that we should spend more time listening to. “Koshersoul” includes the hybrid cultures that have resulted from historical interactions between Southern Jews and African Americans both before and after slavery; between Northern Jews and Northern African Americans; it includes converts and native- born Black Jews, and all the fertile ground in between.
Twitty does not shy away from the thorniest of issues, bluntly narrating his own experiences of racism among Jews, while exploring the sticky question of Jews’ relationship to whiteness (he astutely names it one of being both inside and outside) as well as antisemitism among Black Americans. His responses to the complex experience of being a Black Jew are resolutely rooted in the cultural richness both of Judaism and of the Black Atlantic. He pulls on Jewish philosophy and prayer (you’ll find a version of the Al Chet prayer of forgiveness reworked to be a reflection on racism and a funny take on tashlich using different southern foods designated for different sins), as well as African American resilience: In so doing, he forges a new koshersoul identity that is seamless and beautiful.
Of course, as the name indicates, cooking and foodways are the thread he follows all along the way. He tells us, “’It smells Jewish in here,’ and ‘Lord have mercy what you got cooking in here?’ are equal in my heart.” He explores cooking as a product and an expression of the vast array of human experiences, from diaspora and geography to enslavement, war, and, of course, hospitality and love. Twitty weaves in discussions of ingredients, attitudes about traditional foods, and creative ways that Jews of Color have defined their own culinary space.
No discussion of “Koshersoul” as a concept could be complete without a discussion of Southern Jewish cuisine, and Twitty delves into this with Marcie Ferris Cohen, exploring the interactions between Southern Jews and African Americans in the kitchen, in the community, and in the civil rights movement. For those interested in Southern Jewish cuisine, his reflections on this topic would most definitely be of interest.
I sense that by naming (“Koshersoul”) and reflecting in writing on the Black Jewish American experience, Twitty is consciously defining a space in which these histories and identities can fully exist. He’s writing a history that generally exists in the cracks and overlaps, and shining a light on it. For Twitty it’s not about breaking the narratives of national and ethnic identity, but rather breaking them open, pulling out the hidden strands, and then putting them back together to make a more whole and beautiful story. Twitty has an insatiable desire to track down, acknowledge and honor every last fragment of the diverse puzzle of influences that each of us carries in us. Every cross-fertilization that has been long forgotten. He seeks to find each piece, each strand of our cultural past, and remember it. Hold it dear.
Reading this book allows us to take a moment to dwell in that space that Twitty has generously opened for us. Cooking is the way he both honors the past and forges the future. “Whenever I cook these dishes, I acknowledge the men and women who went before me.”
The book concludes with many “Koshersoul” recipes, including things like Caribbean Compote, Yam Kugel, Black-Eyed Pea Hummus, Jamaican Jerk Chicken Spaghetti, Louisiana-Style Latkes, Mrs. Cardoza’s Famous Seven-Fruit Haroset from Suriname, and many more.
I will leave you with a passage from the book and a recipe that will give you a taste of Koshersoul for yourself:
“Jewish food is a matter of text expressed on the table. Entering the Jewish foodscape changed my life. Jewish food and Black food crisscross each other throughout history. Both are cuisines where homeland and exile interplay. Ideas and emotions and ingredients; satire, irony, longing, resistance- and you have to eat the food to extract the meaning. The food of both diasporas depends on memory. One memory is the sweep of the people’s journey, and the other is the little bits and the pieces of individual lives shaped by ancient paths and patterns. The food is an archive. A keeper of secrets.”
Charlotte Rouchouze, PhD is a local French teacher, food blogger, and beaded jewelry designer. Her blog about food traditions from around the world can be found at www.thechildrenstable.com. Contact her at [email protected]