Koshersoul – Michael W. Twitty
By Donald McKenzie
October 29, 2022
Koshersoul is the second book from Michael W. Twitty, the author of The Cooking Gene. I read The Cooking Gene a couple of years ago. It is a riveting read. I ordered Koshersoul as soon as it was available.
Koshersoul is a very timely book. We see new outbreaks and outbursts of Anti-Semitism all over the place, particularly on the internet. Much of this is done through rehashing old, discredited lies such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or The Blood Libel. All of us need to do everything we can to make sure such dangerous nonsense be consigned to the graveyard of history.
A couple of weeks ago at our Diocesan Synod, the question was raised about why we were having motions put forward dealing with anti-black racism, and not just racism in general. I recommend to anyone in our Diocese to read Koshersoul if you want a better understanding of the topic.
Before I start with the review itself, I would also say that one reason I recommend you pick up this pick and read it is that there is so much in the book that there will be much that I have overlooked, and you will discover important things I have glossed over as you read.
I didn’t dive into this book as soon as it arrived, as I had a couple of other books I was in the process of writing up. However, once I got into Koshersoul, I found it the equal of The Cooking Gene in it’s depth and breadth.
This book is a little hard to categorize. which in a way, helps to make it’s points. Koshersoul is a memoir with recipes. It’s a work of history. There are elements of theology. All topics that are bound up in questions of identity, belonging, and meaning.
One of the first things I would recommend readers doing when they pick up this book(and I would also recommend it be a when not an if), is spend some time thinking through the subtitle: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew.
If the main thrust of The Cooking Gene is Twitty’s African American heritage, Koshersoul focuses on what it means for Twitty to identify as Jewish. As Twitty also identifies as a gay man, all three identities are part of this story, but it is his Jewish identity that predominates here.
As Twitty writes about his identity, two themes are at the center of the book. The first is embodied in the Yiddish word mishpocheh(3). A word meaning family, but carrying connotations beyond traditional family ties. It’s something closer to a kinship of shared history and values.
On pages 7 through 9 Twitty is writing about the vast variety of Black and Jewish people that are part of his life and world. Most tellingly, on page 9, he writes about wishing to be able to describe himself as Jewish, without having to give an “origin story” about how he became Jewish.
Dealing with gatekeepers
This is something that makes inclusion and acceptance hard. You’ll find it as Twitty recounts his time as a teacher in Hebrew school. There he runs into gatekeepers of Jewishness who don’t think he is Jewish enough.
I don’t have any real experience of these things in my life. The closest I came was when I belonged to a Mennonite church, and the members would start playing The Mennonite Game. The site I link to is a satirical site.
An idea that Twitty states early on is that Koshersoul is not to be taken literally. He is not setting out to write a presciptive approach to being Black and Jewish. Rather he examines the ways in which Blackness and Jewishness intersect with each other.
Further he goes on to discuss the ways in which Kosher and Soul, as separate categories are important to him and the way he lives his life. In writing Koshersoul he is offering the opportunity for readers to reflect on how these to concepts can operate in their lives.
Or, in the case of middle-aged white guys like me, to challenge our preconceptions and prejudices of what it means to be Black and/or Jewish. This he does by focusing on his second theme.
The second theme is learning. In Chapter 9, Twitty goes in to the ways in which Judaism encourages learning.
Everybody asks, “Why Judaism?”
I needed a place where learning and relearning were compulsory parts of spiritual and everyday practice. (133)
Learning here, is not so much about collecting facts, and coming to conclusions, as it is about thinking about ideas. Looking at questions from every angle to see what new things you can learn about, both the idea, and yourself.
The layout and contents of the book amplify this idea of learning. The sections on gardens, menus, etc. may seem a little out of place at first. You may think they should be dealt with in a separate book. On reflection though, they are gateways into further learning.
None of these sections are meant to be definitive. Like all good teachers, Twitty is giving his readers the tools to delve more deeply into the questions being discussed. He recognizes the diversity of ideas, and interests that his readers will bring to this book.
Perhaps there is a branch of Judaism that the reader is unaware of. Maybe the reader belongs to a branch of Judaism, but has limited knowledge of their own tradition. Mostly it goes back to the end of the first paragraph of the preface, where Twitty writes:
I want to document the way food transforms the lives of people as people, transform food. (xiii)
The book is certainly a journey. It is one man’s story. Yet, like many of the best journeys, it’s the people encountered along the way that make the journey most memorable.
I mentioned earlier the first chapter of the Koshersoul, where Twitty lists all the varieties of Black Jewish people he has encountered. Throughout the book, he puts meat on those bones, by telling stories of many people he has been in discussion with on what it means to be Black and Jewish.
Something that makes any book enjoyable is the discovery of small things that you didn’t know about before you read the book. Beef Bacon was one of those things. It’s not life-changing, as I’m not adopting a kosher diet. However, it does make a real nice change from pork bacon. I picked mine up from All Natural Meats, an Halal meat shop in my neighbourhood.
Like any good book, Koshersoul makes me want to go back and examine more closely my own traditions. I use the plural, because in the context of the Christian faith I’ve been part of Salvation Army, non-denominational, Mennonite, and Anglican communities.
In each place, I have found my meshpucheh. The people who journey with me. Ones who challenge me. Most of all, people who love me when I feel unlovable.
I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Koshersoul.