Review: Koshersoul

Michael W. Twitty. Koshersoul: The Faith and Journey of an African American Jew. Amistad—An Imprint of Harper Collins.  New York: 2022.  ISBN: 9780062891754.

Richard Zimmer, (Sonoma State University)

What does food have to do with being Black, Jewish, Gay, and Fat?  Everything, as Michael Twitty says in Koshersoul.  In this tour de force, Twitty, a food historian, and chef, leads the reader through his memoir, which includes anthropology, religion, recipes, history, and popular culture.  He creates a meal of personal understanding and larger reflection on how race, religion, sexual identity, and size intersect in American society.  This meal has many rich courses that are of interest to students of food as well as all the areas mentioned—and to the general reader as well. 

In general terms, Twitty talks about the long-time connections between Blacks and Jews.  These connections start in Biblical times. They date from Solomon and Sheba in East Africa and traders and others in West Africa.  For example, peoples such as the Lemba in Tanzania and the Ibo and Igbo in Nigeria claim Jewish connections.  There are others, such as Ghana.  The Ghanian connection may have occurred from Jewish traders who moved below the Maghreb into Timbuktu and then further south.  

There are more “recent” connections—the Jews who were involved in different aspects of the Black slave trade in the Americas, including the US, the Caribbean, and Latin America.  These Jews who were plantation owners and merchants kept kosher households and often employed Blacks in food preparation.  Further, there are newer connections, such as Blacks and “mixed race” people converting to Judaism by choice.  Twitty has himself done such a conversion.

For Twitty and for others, the connections are areas of shared identities, issues, religions, and philosophies.  Blacks were/are marginal and face/faced discrimination. So, too, were Jews who were/are marginal and face/faced discrimination, especially in the American South.  The result is that the foods of the ancestors tie the person, more so the family and the people, to each other at the table, to the past, to the planet, and to the evolving present and the possible future.  Food is “tradition,” and it is love, rootedness, family, and futurity. It expresses and reminds one of who the person is now, from whence they came, and where they can go.  Additionally,  being gay, too, is another form of marginality,  creating its own tribe.

Twitty tells of his own struggles through all his tribes. He talks about his journeys through Judaism, often feeling closer ties to Sephardic and Mizrahi Judaism in part because of the African connections and food similarities.  Of course, he still appreciates Ashkenazi Judaism and its foods.  Furthermore, he talks about his ties to the wider African Atlantic worlds and their foods. 

He speaks about the ways in which he and the Black Jews and white Jews he interviews navigate traditional ceremonies.  How do you keep kosher and “Southern” when the latter calls for pork, often mixing dairy and meat, and also means avoiding fish like catfish and shellfish, like lobster, crab, and shrimp? You use turkey necks for pork, you use non-dairy equivalents, and you don’t eat catfish but eat fish deemed kosher, for example.  The goal is tradition, accommodation, connection, and “soul.”

Several flavorful examples:

“The Black Jewish year has its own culinary hallmarks. For Chava, Sukkot is gumbo time; for Naftali, it’s the last bit of barbecue season, and kykyubga or suya mingles with other meats Memphis style….

Now Koach has added Juneteenth and a Juneteenth seder…Some people like myself also have a special seder plate at the end of Passover that honors the connections between the exodus and the fight against American slavery.” (255)

Twitty weaves his tale with stories of people and movements in places about which the non-specialist would not know, such as the post-Black Muslim now redefined as a Moslem community largely based in Philadelphia.  Or the large role Baltimore played in the slave trade.  Or the nature of the larger Washington, D.C. Jewish communities’ attitudes towards Blacks and gays, especially the time when Twitty was a teacher in the religious school there.  Twitty is a researcher, raconteur, guide, and chef, leading the way for a new vision of movements in all these areas.

Throughout he provides illustrative recipes. In the end, he provides a small cookbook of Koshersoul ones. Twitty provides a glossary of Yiddish, Sephardic,  and Hebrew terms. He also provides a wealth of references for all the topics he addresses. His ending is illustrative of the theme of the book: “I wrote this in the spirit of starting a conversation and of reinvigorating the work of making an America and a world where we would embrace differences, celebrate similarities and connections, and create new traditions that honor us all (2022:353.)”

The reader will want to read his first book as a prelude to this one. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (2017.)  It is both personal and analytical and is a treasure for those unfamiliar with this history, especially the controversies over “Southern” food  and “Soul food.”   One waits with great expectation for Twitty’s next book!

Both books are written in an easy-to-read style. They are appropriate for all levels of college and graduate school. They are relevant to students and others interested in food in any capacity, anthropology, history, sociology, cultural studies, women’s studies, religion, and LGBTQIA studies.

Twitty, Michael J. 2017. The Cooking Gene: Α Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.   Harper Collins. New York.

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