‘Kosher Soul’ Explores a Side of Jewish Food
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‘Kosher Soul’ Explores a Side of Jewish Food

Michael Twitty’s new book contains an Ethiopian Yom Kippur break-fast and other Jewish holiday traditions of Africa, Latin America and the American South.

Michael Twitty’s "Kosher Soul" is the result of his 25 years as a Jewish chef and food writer.
Michael Twitty’s "Kosher Soul" is the result of his 25 years as a Jewish chef and food writer.

In “Kosher Soul,” author Michael Twitty sets out to enlarge our picture of both kosher and soul. It seeks to explain what we think of when we envision kosher food and how we picture food that springs from the soulful experience of African Americans. Twitty, whose previous book in 2018 on Southern food traditions won the prestigious James Beard Award, concludes that neither kosher nor soul may be what we thought it was.

For Twitty, who grew up in a family where his mother attended a Black Lutheran church and his father was Baptist, you can bet that Sunday dinner as a child was not a bowl of chicken soup with a fat matzo ball floating in it. In his 20s, he started to develop an interest in Judaism and, by the age of 25, he had converted and was launched on his search where the food of his youth intersected with his newly found observance of kosher living.

The result some 20 years later is “Kosher Soul,” which attempts to define for us and for him what that means. What he concluded, as he spoke recently in a telephone interview is that both are related in more ways than we realize.

Michael Twitty won the prestigious James Beard Award for a previous book in 2018.

“Kosher and soul are both quasi-ethnic and also universal terms. Literally, kosher or the Hebrew ‘kashrut,’ means the ritual and communal fitness of things for the sake of Jewish observance, but it also means something that’s okay. It is passable. It passes muster. It’s solid. It’s valid. So, it is for the meaning of soul that for Black people means soul music and soul food. It’s about the communal fitness of things. It is the essence of what it means to be Black.”

And while much of the food he writes about is derived from his ancestral roots in the African American South, he is not afraid to explore other cultures. His book has recipes that were inspired by Jewish communities in Africa, South America and the Caribbean.

For a break fast meal on Yom Kippur, for example, he is drawn to the Sigd community of Ethiopian Jews, many of whom have been resettled in Israel. In place of the platters of smoked fish and bagels that end the holiday for some Jews with Eastern European ancestry, he suggests instead an Ethiopian vegetable or chicken stew, called a vegetable wot or doro wat or a Berbere brisket, prepared in the oven with an exotic spice mix added to many of the traditional ingredients, like garlic and onions.

It’s all served with a side of injera, the soft spongy African bread made with teff flour that can be used to scoop up small bites of the stew or meat.

It’s not your grandmother’s break fast where you cover your bagel with a schmear and slices of nova. Here you grab a hunk of injera and dip it into doro wat or your tender Berbere roast.

It’s a meal that Twitty would describe as having soul.

“Soul is the intellectual and aesthetic construct—the memory, the feeling and the skills that power African American, Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean foodways, along with the verve and style that Black chefs bring to other cuisines they interpret.”

Atlanta Rabbi Ruth Abush-Magder, director of education for Be’chol Lashon, a national organization that celebrates the racial and ethnic diversity of the Jewish community, has known Twitty for more than a decade. She believes Twitty represents a broader and richer definition of contemporary Jewish life.

Rabbi Ruth Abush-Magder is the Atlanta-based director of education for an organization that works with Jews of color.

“I think Michael is challenging us to think inclusively about Jewish community and that is a passion of mine. I think that we gain when we allow all parts of our community to shine and contribute and bring the gifts and share the gifts that they have. That includes the culinary gifts.”

According to recent statistics, Jews of color are among the fastest growing segments in Jewish life in America. Yet, a research study led last year by a team from Stanford University, entitled “Beyond the Count,” indicates that 80 percent of those surveyed have experienced discrimination in the Jewish community.

It’s something that Twitty has keenly felt during his years as an outspoken advocate for a closer bond between traditional Jewish communities and the new communities of Jews that are emerging from various ethnic groups. In his interview, he called for a “better form of engagement.”

“We have a lot of work to do,” Twitty said emphatically. “I tell people all the time these two worlds that are represented by those two words, kosher and soul, are adjacent but they’re not exactly the same for more than one reason. And all of that has to be taken into consideration as we move forward.”

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