Culinary, historical expert explains black-Jewish identity through food

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UPDATE: This article has been edited from the original version, which was posted April 5 at 11:21 p.m. See corrections at the bottom of the article.

By David Jahng
For Mitzpeh
@DavidJahng

Michael Twitty, a food blogger, teacher of Judaism, and writer on Jewish cultural issues, visited this university to discuss how kosher and soul food come together to create the black-Jewish identity on Tuesday.

Being African American, Jewish and gay, Twitty struggles with having to justify his identity in everyday conversation. He said it is difficult for those who have never faced prejudice to understand how exhausting being different is.

“Before you think this person’s so weird, odd or complex, get to know their name,” Twitty said. “Put yourself at equal footing with them, their journey and your journey side by side, then you can begin to make real, true human connections.”

Whether we like it or not, he said, everyone serves as an ambassador and educator to the uninformed. He said because of that, we have the power to encourage meaningful dialogue to break people out of the bubbles in which they are experiencing the world.

For Twitty, preparing and cooking food provides an opportunity to recognize his cultural identity.  He said even a simple recipe like his black-eyed pea hummus can get a conversation going.

“It is food that is special to some Jewish customs and traditions, and African tradition,” he said. “You look at the symbolism in both cultures, it bonds the two together and helps tell a story.”

Black-eyed peas are an ancient food, cultivated for tens of thousands of years in sub-Saharan Africa, and connect different communities, Twitty said.

He said this intersectionality, or connected nature, exists in all peoples and cultures, and if someone doesn’t recognize it, they are not trying hard enough. Not seizing the opportunity to draw and learn from the people around you is a waste of the “American multicultural experiment,” he said.

Mary DiMambro, a junior anthropology and food science major, said she enjoyed how he spoke of the relationship of intersectionality between culture and food and how food can be used as a medium to talk to people.

“A lot of times when we talk about it in an anthropological sense, it’s more about how culture influences food, but not a lot about how food influences culture and how they converse with each other,” she said.

Twitty said people are quick to separate African culture from Judaism when in reality, black-Jewish family trees can trace back hundreds of years further than typical white-Jewish lines.

Michael Twitty, an African-American Jewish food writer, blogger, and teacher, discusses the black-Jewish identity with over 25 UMD students and faculty Tuesday night. David Jahng/Mitzpeh.

He said these black-Jewish cultures often include multi-spiritual people, with mixed members of Judaism, Islam and Christianity all living under the same household.

It is for this reason, he said, that food can be the common ground those with different spiritual and cultural backgrounds come together on.

Dr. Adi Mahalel, a Yiddish professor in the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish studies, said the event was informative and entertaining.

“I usually teach literature and film, only during Passover do I also teach Yiddish recipes,” Mahalel said. “It is intriguing to see how fundamental food is to culture.”

The politics of food also play a large role in understanding how cultures come to develop, Twitty said. He said the development of non-kosher food during and following slavery revolutionized the way cuisine was prepared in southern households.

As a teacher, he said he had the opportunity to educate younger generations in the synagogue and classroom that a past of slavery is not one of shame, but rather it is one of resistance and eventual self-liberation.  By gathering evidence and looking at the history of food, he said it helps children understand and walk in the shoes of their ancestors.

Dr. Maxine Grossman, an associate professor in the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies, said she was very interested in Jewish-cultural studies and the study of food.  She said the event gave her the perfect opportunity to learn about both concepts.

“I loved that he was able to be so personal, so nuanced in his treatment of big questions, while also demonstrating really deep and broad knowledge about topics that are wide-ranging,” Grossman said.

After the lecture, Twitty signed copies of his best-selling book, “The Cooking Gene.” In it, he focused on his African-American story and the origins of soul food, asking the question of how the different parts of the African-American identity came to be. In his next book, he plans to go in-depth on his kosher side.

“Our food tradition just speaks to the resilience and the long stories of our histories. We’re not new, we’re not strange, we’re actually part of a long-standing tradition of these two diasporas coming together,” Twitty said.

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article stated that Dr. Adi Mahalel helped organize this event. It has been updated.

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