A Letter to Ish Entertainment and the Producers of “Kosher Soul”:
I got a tweet Monday night I should probably pass on to you:
“@koshersoul tv show look soooo funny #koshersoul”
I was mortified. It’s official, the thing I have railed against in my crusade for culinary and cultural justice had come for me: my name, established long before someone got the bright idea for a merger of ethnic stereotypes, has been compromised by your “sense” of “koshersoul.”
Appropriation—the big word that seems to have been repeatedly hurled from London to Tokyo (thank ya I-G-G-Y)—un-reciprocated and unwelcome borrowing, or if you will outright theft of the cultural and artistic production of “others” seems too obvious to even whisper here so I will leave it up to my readers to decide whether you in bad faith decided to nab my moniker for your own purposes or if you just carelessly decided to ignore my work when naming your program.
The “others” I mention above are we the people who in our struggles to make this a more perfect Union, are often marginalized and robbed of our ability to rise and achieve by being denied the same platform as those appropriating our creations. There is a difference between respectful quoting, acknowledging sources and origins and sharing words, genres, styles and modes on the one hand and lifting them wholesale and using them in ways that diminish and demean originators.
The promo trailer for “Kosher Soul” shows a classic collision of cultures- and who could be more different than “the Blacks” and “the Jews?” What could be funnier than a Black man passing out from the sacred ritual of hatafat-dam-brit (blood drop circumcision)? Ooh his baseball cap says “Kosher” in thug motif! Her mother is skeptical, the Jews and their customs are so bizarre that it’s a guilty pleasure you can’t wait to shmear your eyes with. Goodness gracious glory be to Hashem–this TV show sho’ do “look so funny.” (How easy the sarcasm flows…)
Because it “look so funny,” (sic) things will be slow to change. We will go on believing that to be Black is monolithic and to be Jewish only means Ashkenazi; or that Blacks have to be invited into Jewish civilization, not that we have always been a part of it from the Jews of Ethiopia to Harlem synagogues in the 1920’s and far beyond. Despite this we have to remind the entertainment media that we’ve done this stereotype/archetype game before, it’s so tired, so boring, so basic. In the shadow of Ferguson, in the clearing haze of the Chapel Hill shooting, television seems to have abdicated making cross-cultural understanding possible in exchange for preserving Old World demons and New World canards. Because the world believes what it sees, and perception “is reality,” it means that real people suffer because their vision and their truth rarely make it to the screen or page.
Last year when I was working to sell my book, one publisher was really excited by the prospect of publishing me except for one thing; I’m Jewish. Being Jewish, or rather weaving that fact into my narrative, presented such a problem for said publisher–a very well-known publisher—that they requested I leave it out of my book in order to be published. By openly discussing my Jewish story, even as a small part of the book, I was “muddying the waters.” “America’s not ready for this,” nervously laughed the (Jewish) editor. Her voice had an incredulous lilt as if to say, “I can’t possibly sign on to someone so outrageous.” Suggestions were made about me not wearing a kippa in public or mentioning my identity in interviews. I was supposed to be their Black author, nothing more, because “America” wasn’t going to see me as marketable or palatable. Me? Michael W. Twitty–Black, gay and Jewish. Just too much, too soon, come back in another century, but hey, go me, I had my Sandy Koufax moment…I refused to be complicit in my own invisibility.
It hurt. It’s because I’m not too much, I’m exactly what this country is supposed to be about. Melting pot or salad bowl, pick your ethno-culinary metaphor, America is the place where you can be anything you want. Right? Blacks and Jews have been melding and fighting, struggling and striving on American soil for nearly four centuries. It’s not to the credit of our media that the spectrum of Blacks (AND Asians and Native Americans and Latinos and Middle Easterners and Indians….) with Jewish identities and the critical stories we have to tell are not heard over the din or the sort of drivel some have been given a green light to shill.
What really is “koshersoul?”
It’s not a thing, its a feeling. It’s naches, tsuris and cool and swag in a blender. You have to have all four to be part of the Chocolate Chosen. (Don’t even try it–already filing paperwork…)
I remember being at the Kotel, the Western Wall, and a group of Ethiopian Jews stopped me to shake my hand and talk to me and when I left them, they lifted their fists in solidarity and said “Shalom, Ahi!”
(Goodbye, Brother!) That’s a koshersoul moment.
I remember the first Yom Kippur after my conversion and I was given the honor to the Torah to carry around the synagogue before Kol Nidrei, and the women and the elders wept because I was. That’s koshersoul.
I remember when Andrew Zimmern ate my cooking on Bizarre Foods America and said that he tasted everything from his Grandmother’s kitchen to the South and West Africa in my food. So much for the notion that “kosher” and “soul food” are “incompatible” or “irreconcilable” (which is pretty much what some people think of having a Black-Jewish identity…and why I cook this food!) That’s koshersoul.
To me Koshersoul means using the Afro-Jewish text of food to really communicate that I have a story that goes beyond bad jokes about Sammy Davis Jr. People eat my particular mash up of histories, humor, genius means of survival and they understand to their kishkes and bones who I am. My entire mission with food is to bring people together and work through the difficulties so that we can tell our truths to one another and leave and live in an authentic sense of peace. Our food is a mnemonic, its all about memory, and all those memories above and more are the secret spices in my original recipe. How we have survived our Venn-Diagram of oppression is our greatest cultural capital.
Koshersoul isn’t seeing how many Black-Jew jokes you can fit into a 30 minute show. It’s walking into six synagogues over 13 years and being the only African American Hebrew school teacher my students ever had—or would have. Without cameras I made Black AND Jewish history whenever I walked into a classroom. Where was the canned laughter as I worked through people’s surprise and suspicions, their curiosity and doubts. I gave a kid who knew more about hip-hop than I did my first set of tefillin, taught him how to wear them, pulled out a map and showed him the village from whence came his name. That’s koshersoul.
Koshersoul isn’t kitsch and comedy. It’s being an ambassador for my people and my people’s story in Jerusalem as profiled in Tablet, or before Rene Redzepi’s MAD Symposium in 2013. I’m @koshersoul to Dr. Henry Louis Gates and a lot of other people who hold my work and my journey in high esteem. (Not that you care but he and Dr.Peter Gomes, both preeminent Black scholars at Harvard—are of Jewish heritage going back to the Middle Ages.)
With Claudia Roden author of The Book of Jewish Food in Jerusalem.
But this is not about me, I’m just doing a sacred rite—tze’akah—crying out. K’vetching wears silk, this is my voice in sackcloth. Our struggles—as a diverse African American people—particularly African Americans involved in Judaism—come out of media-driven ignorance because it’s “too complicated” for people to comprehend intersections between culture, peoplehood, identities and spirituality. There are so many gifted voices that bridge this small divide between Blackness and Jewishness—women and men who I could list for days—and yet our society seems to eat up our divisions, misunderstandings, conflicts and hatreds. The hard work—of being human seems to still allude. The documentation of our amazing time is slipping through our hands as we seek boxes and genres to confine people for the sake of comprehension in the most banal of terms.
Koshersoul is not just a clever spin on my identity. The power to name myself is sacred because my last name is a true “slave name.” My great great great grandfather Washington was sold to the Twitty family just before the Civil War. He didn’t have much choice as he was sold from place to place. When I call myself or my style of identity cooking koshersoul or by my Hebrew name, Akiba Ben Avraham they are names I created with the awareness I have the luxury of freedom. 150 years after my third great-grandfather was liberated from the labor camp known as a plantation, I am free to name myself and demand that what I call myself be respected.
In Judaism, the word for “soul” and the word for “name,” have the same shoresh, or root. That root puts the Hebrew word for name, “sheim,” at the heart of the word for “soul,” neshamah. In the tradition of my Akan ancestors from Ghana there is a proverb, “Man came to seek a name, nothing more.” A person’s name is sacred, it’s not a commodity, it is bound up with their essence, and the degree to which a person’s name is their crown, determines their journey in life. If I am praying to Something–and not just to air–that Something studies holy books and wears sacred scrolls in its tefillin, and on those parchments are our narratives and our lives—our names and our souls.
But you know what, “Mazal Tov!,” if anything its mamesh a (m)es(s), “Kosher Soul” could go down in history as the world’s most expensive nigg…sorry…schvartzeh…joke…hold the heartfelt highbrow multicultural fodder. You can call your show what you like, but you can’t steal my soul, and while you’re at it, I hope you find yours.