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How Black American Jews incorporate their food traditions into their Passover Seders

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tonight, across the world, Jewish families and friends will gather for the second night of Passover. Many will hold a Seder, a ritual meal where the story of the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt is retold. For Jews around the world, it's a time to honor their faith and make the celebration their own by bringing their own cultural and food traditions to the table. And that's also true of African American Jews, for whom the Passover story resonates on multiple levels.

To hear more about this, we called Michael Twitty. He is a James Beard Award-winning author and food historian. And Rabbi Sandra Lawson, director of Racial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism. Michael Twitty and Rabbi Lawson, welcome. And thank you so much for joining us.

SANDRA LAWSON: Yeah, thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So - and I want to mention that we are having this conversation in advance of the holiday, because I don't want people to think that we're interfering with your celebrations in practice. Michael, you write so powerfully as a food historian about what food tells us about history and culture and our lives. And you've written about the intersection of foods in the Jewish and African diaspora. So would you just talk as briefly as you can, because obviously you've written books about this and done marvelous television shows about this, about why food is so important in understanding culture?

MICHAEL TWITTY: I think that when you're oppressed or marginalized, whether that's queer identity, Jewish identity, Black identity and so many others, I think food plays a very special role in caretaking - self-care, community care. It's a way that we express love for each other. But, you know, there's also this element of satire and humor and inside think and genius behind African American in particular, African Atlantic, African Diaspora and Jewish diaspora foodways. You know, I've often made the joke that we're the only people who, when we sit down to eat, we're already talking about the next meal we're going to eat or the meal we had before the meal we had.

(LAUGHTER)

TWITTY: And it's like only - and I grew up in a multicultural community outside of Washington. And, of course, you know, there were people from some of the most ancient food cultures - Greek, Italian, Chinese. They never had these conversations. But if you went to a Black or Jewish household, that was the conversation. And the other thing is that we love to eat our oppression. I mean, for God's sakes, Passover is about some really awful bread that we had 3,500-plus years ago, and we're still complaining about it. And, I mean, part of, you know, soul food is chitlins and this and - why we got to eat that? And part of Jewish food is, gefilte fish, why do we got to eat that? And it's always the same thing. It's like you just got to eat it. And so I asked my mother one time, do we have to eat our oppression? Do we have to eat our pain? And the answer was yes. So I - there's a seamless line of just, like, connection between the two cultures.

MARTIN: I have never heard it expressed that way before, but that makes complete sense. And so, Rabbi, I wanted to ask about - Passover is such a special holiday because I think that people, whether they're Jewish or not, understand it on an intuitive level. But I think that it particularly resonates with people who connect with the African American experience. So I wanted to ask you about that. How - is there a way in which Passover combines, like, more than one strain of your identity?

LAWSON: You know, we have all these stories of liberation. We have, like, Black liberation theology and, you know, other forms of liberation. And as far as I'm concerned, like, the exodus from Mizrahim, which is the Hebrew word for Egypt, and also, I think the Hebrew word is better because it also translates to the place of pain. So Mizrahim was the place that caused us pain. And it was also a place of constriction, you know, where we felt like we couldn't be ourselves. We weren't free. And so with that in mind, definitely the story of exodus from Mizrahim is a very powerful story that definitely resonates with both Black and Jewish communities.

When I sit at my Passover Seder with my friends, I can't help but draw the connection from - freeing Mizrahim, freeing the place, you know, that enslaved us and the American slavery experience, you know, bringing in Harriet Tubman, bringing in Frederick Douglass. And not just that, like, the Jim Crow period of my grandparents and my parents. And one of the things about Passover is that it is about family traditions. And it's celebrated in the home, and probably the most celebrated Jewish holiday because it's celebrated at home. And there's a lot of flexibility about how we remember that experience of enslavement.

MARTIN: Can I ask each of you how - what are your Seders like? Are they big? Are they intimate? How - what are they like?

TWITTY: So - go ahead. Go ahead, Rabbi, please.

LAWSON: No, I was just saying - I was wondering, like, I really want to know what Michael's Seder is like.

MARTIN: Yeah, me, too.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But - Michael, I bet there's a lot of pressure on you. But what's Passover like for you?

TWITTY: I'm an extrovert. I love big Seders. I love entertaining people. Of course, the past few years have not been able to do that as much. So it's been - we had a four-person Seder last year and it seemed like really grand. And now this year, I have 15 people one night and 17 people the next night.

MARTIN: Oh, boy. That sounds amazing.

TWITTY: Yeah. We're going to - we have the tambourines. We got everything. Like, it's like - it's, you know, it's hard. In both traditions, you cook for a crowd. And it's not easy to scale down. I mean, you could do it, but it's just, you know, you have to go into this knowing it's going to be intimate and very purposeful and very defined or it's going to - or it has to be orchestrated. I mean, a Seder isn't just, you know, a meal. It's like, hey, I got to - the kitchen. I got to do this. I got to do that.

LAWSON: Right.

TWITTY: Plan a menu. I have to also, if you're leading a Seder, you know, figure out, what parts are we going to - we going to do the whole thing for the sake of doing the whole thing? We going to skip certain parts? How is the meal going to look? How can I make sure everybody is happy? So - but, I mean, it's all those different elements. I'm sure you're going to ask the question, what are you serving?

MARTIN: And you know I am. OK. Thank you. Yes, sir.

TWITTY: So we're going to do a brisket thing with berbere, the traditional Ethiopian spice mixture. We're also - I'm also doing chicken that's like deby (ph) style from Senegal. I'm doing kachumbari, which is a Indian influenced Swahili salad. Of course there'll be collard greens. There'll be this African American Seder plate which you can look up online with the sweet potato for the karpas, the collard greens (inaudible), the hot chili for the horseradish, the chicken bone for, you know, migration. All those symbols will be there. And so we'll have all the basics, the, you know, a blend of Sephardic, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, African, African Atlantic, African American. So I call my cooking style Afro Oshkharfardi (ph). So, you know, all that stuff is going to be on the plate. I got vegans. I got omnivores. I have, like, a whole menu that's, like, two-thirds vegan rabbis. So, you know, you want to come up from Burlington or Fredericksburg, Va., overnight, you know, I don't know how, you know, fly on the backs of angels, you all are welcome to come. And you'll have plenty of vegan and veggie food to eat.

MARTIN: That sounds amazing.

LAWSON: At the end of our Seder between next year in Jerusalem, I'm going to say next year at Michael Twitty's house.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I think that sounds like a good plan. Well, Michael Twitty and Rabbi Sandra Lawson, thank you both so much for talking with us today and sharing these traditions and just sort of beautiful celebrations with us. And, you know, next year, hopefully, people will be able to celebrate in whichever way they wish without fear of COVID, so...

TWITTY: (Non-English language spoken).

LAWSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Michael Twitty is a food historian and James Beard Award-winning author of "The Cooking Gene" and the forthcoming "Kosher Soul." Rabbi Sandra Lawson is the director of Racial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism. Thank you both so much.

LAWSON: Thank you, Michel.

TWITTY: (Non-English language spoken). Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.