Black-Jewish Chef Michael Twitty Talks Navigating Identities, ‘KosherSoul,’ At Beth El Event

Onstage in the main sanctuary at Beth El Synagogue, multi-award-winning Black-Jewish author and chef Michael Twitty recalled how hard it was to convince publishers that his books should include his entire identity.

In 2017’s “The Cooking Gene,” Twitty wrote about the history and personal meaning of Black food in the South through his family’s roots as slaves. “I told my ancestors’ story – but also talked about being a Jew,” Twitty said.

But publishers still asked him not to write about being Jewish “because ‘America is not ready for you,’” he said. “Then what good is America? Because my story is an American story. I’m not possible anywhere else.”

Twitty’s approach was vindicated when he won two James Beard awards for “The Cooking Gene” for best writing and book of the year.

Twitty was the featured guest at a Beth El event on Jan. 10, where he spoke at length about the diversity of the Jewish community, understanding history and culture through food, and his personal experience facing discrimination from Jews and non-Jews alike.

The talk, sponsored by a group including the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, the Multiracial Jewish Alliance of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Jewish Community Foundation, was moderated by Michelle Horovitz, one of the co-founders of Appetite for Change, a nonprofit investing in North Minneapolis through food and culinary education.

Twitty brought his Minnesotan audience in with a well-timed sense of humor. He recalled the last time he was at Beth El: 14 years ago, during a trip to get a puppy born in a litter in Woodbury.

“I spent the Shabbat of Hanukkah in this sanctuary,” Twitty said. “It was my first Minnesota experience ever. I was scared because I thought I was walking straight onto the set of ‘Fargo.’”

After being wished a Good Shabbos by a heavily-Minnesota-accented man in a Kosher market, Twitty remembered thinking “What Jew talks this way?”

It was a light-hearted reversal of the serious denialism – either of discrimination or of their entire identity – that Twitty and other Jews of Color often face from the mostly Ashkenazi white Jewish community in the U.S.

Twitty grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a Southern, gay, Black man, and a Jewish convert through the Mizrachi and Sephardic Jewish tradition.

He spent over a decade as a teacher at a relatively diverse Jewish Hebrew school in D.C. There, Twitty would often speak about the discrimination he and some of his students faced for being Black. One of the principals, a Jewish woman, told him to talk less about racism.

“She said, ‘Well, this is a Jewish place. We don’t have that here,’” Twitty recalled. “How naive.”

Twitty told the principal that non-white kids in the school were facing real racism and antisemitism both inside and outside of the Jewish community. White Jews deny their Jewishness for not being white – meanwhile, non-Jews deny their Jewishness for the same reason, accusing all Jews of being inherently white.

As Jews of Color, this was a core Jewish experience that needed to be talked about, yes, in a Jewish school.

Now, Twitty said, Ashkenazi white Jews are starting to feel the same pressure that Jews of Color have felt for years. Widespread antisemitic vitriol in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war has been about denying the Jewish community’s legitimacy.

“It’s not the facts and the figures of the actual war that we’re talking about,” Twitty said. “A lot of the stuff on social media, it’s about digging underneath the skin of us as a people.”

He cited people calling the Jewish community imposters (an accusation tied to a fringe Hebrew Israelite conspiracy theory and the debunked Khazar theory), posts saying that Arabs are semites so they can’t be antisemitic, and antisemitic conspiracy theories about the Talmud telling Jews to cheat and mistreat non-Jews.

It’s a challenging environment that leaves many Jews feeling like they don’t belong anywhere.

“You can’t win. You give people entertainment and joy and you heal them, and you give them a god and a day of rest…and you just can’t win, you’ll never win,” Twitty said, crying with frustration. “You’ll never be a human being. You’ll have people in the streets saying stuff like, ‘The ovens weren’t big enough.’ I can’t stand it. And there are Jews, who don’t look like me, who believe that I can’t feel what they feel – and that’s another kind of erasure.”

To Twitty, the organized Jewish community response needs to be about leaning into Jewish diversity in the U.S. That’s been part of his mission, uplifting all voices from Jews of Color while also exploring his own identity.

“We need to understand who we are…and not treat it as tokenism,” Twitty said. “One little Ladino song, and one recipe over here, does not make a full understanding of Jewish diversity…we can hold space for multiple narratives. That’s what we’re supposed to do – not wipe out one culture with another culture.”

Twitty has explored this diversity often through food and his books, most recently “KosherSoul,” published in 2022. The book is a personal memoir and meditation on the intersection of Black and Jewish food, and the people who cook it.

In it, he continues mapping out the roots of Southern Jewish food, tied together with the foods that African slaves and Native peoples grew. Without European food staples, Jewish immigrants used local ingredients to evolve their recipes.

“To Southern Jews, there were collard greens, black-eyed peas, rice, sweet potatoes, corn – the staple foods brought hither by Africans and Native Americans,” Twitty said. “Ashkenazi Jews in particular really clung to this and adopted these foods and mixed them up.”

But the mix of Black-Jewish foods also came from some of the slaves being Jewish, having been taken from Jewish communities in Africa, part of the mosaic that makes up the history of what Twitty calls “KosherSoul” food.

Though studying and writing about food, Twitty’s books are not in a typical cookbook format. That’s because he’s most interested in the stories that food tells, rather than any particular mix of ingredients.

“Recipes aren’t important to me,” Twitty said. “Recipes are spells or formulas, you needn’t know the difference. The same recipe can be used by one person to summon a frog, and another person to summon a prince. If you know how to cook, you know what to do.”

It’s in that vein that he answered the last question of the night – how the Twin Cities Jewish community can support Jews of Color – with an appeal about stories.

“The bottom line is you need to elevate [Jews of Color and their] voices to bring them in, and also our stories as Black people, not just as Jews,” Twitty said.

At the same time, it’s important not to be fixated on having Jews of Color explain their identities and their journeys – be it how they converted, or their family background. The focus needs to be simply on welcoming them.

“What did the Lubavitcher Rebbe say: Greet every Jew with joy…If you look like me, it’s beautiful for someone to be like, ‘this person is Mishpucha [family],’” Twitty said.

But in a larger sense, supporting and welcoming Jews of Color is also about reevaluating how the Jewish community relates to the American project, and not being afraid of ideas like intersectionality.

“Listen, we have to rethink this America thing,” Twitty said. “Being an American, you are blessed, you are lucky, to be culturally cross-contaminated every day you wake up and every day you go to bed. Multiculturalism isn’t the enemy. It’s who we are. It’s who we’ve been since day one. How we navigate that journey is what matters.”