Author and chef Michael Twitty will lead this year’s JCRC Social Justice Seder on March 30.
Passover is said to be the most celebrated of Jewish holidays. Of course, that notion may vary depending on who you ask. Nevertheless, Passover is significant in that it provides an opportunity to bring together people from varying walks of life, different religions, and different cultures, and to delve into the concepts of slavery, freedom, and redemption. For cookbook author and chef Michael Twitty this blending of tradition, culture, and identity is what he terms, “Koshersoul.” “It’s a catchall term. But it’s also ethnic. It is a way to describe the amalgamation of Black and Jewish cultures and the venn diagram space between them,” he said in an interview for the Jewish Observer podcast. And it is the title of his latest book, “Koshersoul.”
Twitty will be sharing Koshersoul as leader of this year’s Jewish Community Relations Committee’s Social Justice Seder. Rachel Whitney, co-Chair of the JCRC’s Social Justice Seder, says, “"We are so excited to welcome Michael Twitty to Nashville. His books are rich with lessons in our shared culture and great food, and I'm looking forward to celebrating Passover with him leading our Social Justice Seder."
In describing the various identities that make up Koshersoul, Twitty describes a diverse array of backgrounds. “There is the Koshersoul of white Jewish southerners in the deep south, there’s the Koshersoul of Black Jews everywhere in the United States and Canada and the Caribbean, there’s the Koshersoul of Africans who are also Jews…and then there’s the Koshersoul of people who are deliberately fusing the different foods and cultures who get a different ‘midrash,’ a different interpretation of American Jewish and Black life.”
Twitty’s first book, “The Cooking Gene,” won him two James Beard awards, for Best Food Writing and Book of the Year. Both books read like memoirs, rather than traditional cookbooks and take readers deep into his own personal story, and the story of the politics of food. “A cookbook is nice, don’t get me wrong. But cookbooks are not in the same place culturally that they once were because of the internet. Anyone can get anything they want. It’s recipe without the meaning, they can get the cuisine without the culture” he says. “That’s not my thing. I want you to get to know the people. I want to effect positive social change.
He says people often ask him how many Black Jews like him there are. “Well, I’m glad you asked,” he says, “It just so happens that there are about 150,000 Jews of African descent in North America, the islands, the United States and Canada combined.”
When asked about his influences, Twitty credits scholar John Michael Vlach, of George Washington University, with helping him find direction and focus himself, suggesting he figure out one or two things he could master. “I homed in on food. I’ve done that for quite some time…About the same time, I was meeting Joan Nathan and Martha Cohen Ferris, author of ‘Matzoh Ball Gumbo,’ and learning I could do this for a living,” he says, “I don’t want to be mistaken for someone who is all about technique. But I do want to be known as someone who uses food to tell stories about culture.”
Twitty is a former Hebrew school teacher who often used food to teach the lessons around culture and Jewish heritage. “I introduced my students to different ways with food, different traditions. Food is an excellent way to keep their attention.” He says since he did not fit the traditional mold for Hebrew school teachers, it was easier to reach the students and begin to change their narratives around what it means to be Jewish. For example, in teaching seventh graders about the Holocaust, he used cooking lessons to discuss the lives of the people who were murdered. “We talked about the lives of people who had been living in areas of Europe for centuries, if not a millennium and these communities are being destroyed, but there was also resistance. What does resistance look like, what does pushing back look like, what does antisemitism look like?”
Resistance is something Twitty has faced, and continues to face, in his own life. After winning the James Beard award, he says there were those in the publishing world who wanted him to shed his Jewish identity. “They said, ‘Well, you can’t wear a kippah in public. You can’t really talk about this. This is confusing to people; this will muddy the waters. Thank God they were there when I won. They were wrong.”
This year’s Social Justice Seder is being held on Thursday, March 30 from 6-8pm at the Gordon JCC’s Pargh Auditorium. Table hosts include: Rabbi Shana Mackler, of The Temple; co-Chairs Rachel and Marcus Whitney; Anna Stern, The Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville Board Member, and The University School; Freya Sacks and Jason Shuster, The University School; Jerry Stelmaszak, of Brentwood High School; Patty Stelmaszak. Deborah Oleshansky, Director of the JCRC of The Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville says, “The seder is an opportunity to build bridges and connect with the broader community. Michael represents many different identities and is a natural person to bring in to lead the seder.”
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