Off the Shelf: More than a cookbook

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Some works that focus on food and offer recipes are more than cookbooks. That’s not to denigrate cookbooks, but for those of us interested in the history or culture of food – and not the recipes we will probably never make – it’s the other aspects of these works that appeal. That’s true of two recent books: “Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew” by Michael W. Twitty (Amistad) and “Feeding Women of the Talmud, Feeding Ourselves: Uplifting the Voices of Talmudic Heroines and Honoring Them with Simple Vegan Recipes” compiled by Kenden Alfond (Turner Publishing Company). 

Although “Koshersoul” contains almost 70 pages of recipes at its end, Twitty’s book is really a discussion of Judaism and the culture of food told from a personal point of view. At first his style may seem unusual, but that’s because it feels more oral than written – it’s as if he’s casually discussing his thoughts with readers rather than producing them on pages. What Twitty offers is a different point of view from most works about Jewish food. He calls himself “four times queer”: he is (in his own words) Black, Jewish, gay and fat. He is also Southern and his cooking has its roots in soul food, and mixes Black, Jewish and Southern ingredients and recipes. Twitty notes his book is an attempt “to navigate two very rich traditions and melding or separating them when mood and message mattered – that was what koshersoul was really about.” He’s not asking anyone else to follow his particular path, but gives coping mechanisms (be they specific rituals or recipes) to help people on their own journeys.

The best parts of “Koshersoul” are the stories Twitty tells about his life and his discussion with others in similar circumstances. What’s clear is that it is not easy to be Black in Jewish situations, nor, at times, is it easy to be Jewish when speaking with other Blacks. His poor treatment at the one synagogue where he taught was clearly racist. However, rather than becoming alienated from Judaism, he found ways to reconcile the different aspects of himself and to teach about what it means to be a person of color and Jewish.

Twitty writes about several different food traditions. There are the Sephardic/Mizrachi dishes he makes at his synagogue, and the combinations of Southern and Jewish food he also offers. Some of his most interesting looking recipes combine these two cultures: for example, he notes his collard greens kreplachs are very popular. He lists potential menus for Shabbat and other Jewish holidays: the ones for Passover sound mouth watering. Twitty also notes his many additions to the seder plate in order to create a meaningful African American seder. 
More important is the way Twitty sees how the two sides of his identity recognize what food can accomplish. He writes, “Black or Jewish or Black and Jewish means food is a love language. That love isn’t just invested in satiety, and it is more than anchored in survival. There are indeed signifiers of trauma and patinaed historical memories. And yet there is joy. For us, ‘my soul looks back and wonders how I got over’ braids well with ‘they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” Twitty sees both sides as helping him to create a beautiful and spiritual life.

Twitty writes as an extremely knowledgeable Jew and expects his readers to understand his biblical and rabbinic references. But even if readers are unable to place a particular citation, they will easily understand his meaning. His perspective on his experiences is well worth reading and offers an important way to understand Jewish identity.

While Twitty’s work focuses on contemporary times, Alfond once again looks to the past. Her previous work, “Feeding Women of the Bible, Feeding Ourselves: Uplifting Voices of Hebrew Biblical Heroines and Honoring Them With Simple Plant-Based Recipes” focused on discussions of women in the Bible and presented recipes related to their lives. In her new book, Alfond offers 69 stories of women in the Talmud and recipes connected to their tales. She believes her project “allow[s] contemporary Jewish women to retell and gleam meaning from [these] stories.” The writers of these retellings include rabbis, rabbinical students, Jewish teachers and other Jewish professionals. The recipes come from both home cooks and professional chefs.

Writing about women who are mentioned in the Talmud is not easy. Most of the women are never named and used mainly as an example in a (male) rabbinic discussion. Each section tells the story of the women noted in the Talmud and places them in context. The writer then expands on the text in the aggadah section: these comments range from stories imagining the characters’ thoughts and actions to general discussion of the themes noted in the original stories. This is followed by questions readers can ponder or use to stimulate discussion if the book is being read for a book club or in study groups. Also included is a recipe with an author’s noting the connection between the food and the woman under discussion.

What sections/stories will appeal to readers depends on individual taste. These tales are more difficult to write than those found in Alfond’s book about the Bible because so little is known about the women. Yet, that is partly the point: these writers look to expand our thoughts about how women were treated during rabbinic times and to collect and celebrate their lives. Some stories are more difficult to relate to – for example, those featuring demons and cultural realities that may offend contemporary senses – but that is exactly what the writers are exploring. 

Anyone seeking an introduction to references about women in the Talmud may find this an interesting way to begin. Those looking for plant-based/vegan recipes will find numerous ones to try. The book can be used as a study guide or as an opportunity for readers to gather and share the dishes offered in “Feeding Women of the Bible.”