Judaism has been a part of my life since I was born. My mother snuck Shabbat candles into the hospital in preparation for my birth and I was born on Shabbos afternoon surrounded by my family and future friends, all welcoming Shabbat and my existence. As a child, I was raised primarily by my Jewish, African-American mother, Denise. I am honored to say that she converted to this amazing religion and that I am 100% Jewish.
As soon as I turned five, she signed me up for Hebrew school. For seven years, I studied the Hebrew alphabet and dozens of prayers. By the time my Bat Mitzvah rolled around last year, I had memorized every prayer I had studied, but I was nervous. So I used my Bat Mitzvah folder as a memory tool and looking down helped avoid the stares of the 200 guests!
For as long as both my mother and I can remember, I have been attending Be’chol Lashon; a place where I immediately feel at home, surrounded by my fellow Jews of all colors. At Be’chol Lashon, I am free to be who I am: an energetic, fun-loving, Black, White, and Jewish teenager. About five years ago, I, along with a few other young Be’chol Lashon regulars were asked by my mother, Denise Davis, and a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon, Diane Tobin, whether we would enjoy a Judaism-based summer camp for us, the kids. We all replied “yes” immediately. The first year of Camp Be’chol Lashon in 2009 was a blast. It is amazing to see the intense diversity of our community. We explore this diversity by “traveling” to different countries where Jews live, and we examine the culture of those countries through art and cooking projects and dancing.
My Jewish summer camp loyalties are divided. In 2011, I began attending a month-long Judaism-based overnight camp in Ojai called Ramah. Every day, teachers inform us campers about Israel and Judaism. Every morning, we participate in Shacharit services, the morning service, before breakfast. This is a challenge, but after services, food tastes even better. On Friday evening, everyone on the campgrounds cleanses themselves and changes their clothes to welcome Shabbat with songs, a service, and the best part; food.
However, Ramah and Be’chol Lashon are not the only places I stay connected to my Jewish heritage; I celebrate Shabbat every week with dinner on Friday nights and by attending services on Saturdays. I love celebrating Shabbat with my friends and family because it reminds me that I am surrounded by such a wonderful community. Though, with my busy schedule, I do not attend synagogue every week, I do my best to drag myself out of bed in time for the service. As I continue to grow and mature, Judaism will continue to be a large part of my identity and heritage.
There’s a not-so-funny joke that goes, “A man walks into a Chinese restaurant and says to the waiter, ‘Excuse me sir, but are there any Chinese Jews?’ To which the waiter replies, ‘No, sir, we just have orange juice, apple juice, grapefruit juice…’”
It’s slightly bearable if the delivery includes an awful impression of a Chinese accent. But there are apparently many people who do appreciate this joke, and they make sure that it makes its way through the grapevine to me, a Chinese Jew.
I enjoy being a Chinese Jew.
I eat plenty of matzo balls and potstickers, I celebrate three New Years, and in high school I crushed my math classes.
I’ve often had to convince people that I’m Jewish, which is amusing and usually results in a new friend feeling like they can connect with me better due to a shared religion. Other than that, I can’t say I really thought about what it meant to Chinese and Jewish while I was growing up.
The only time my Chinese Jewishness got me into trouble was during my dating days in New York. Jewish guys with “yellow fever” would take me on casual dates to casual places, but the second they discovered I was Jewish, things got weird. Suddenly I wasn’t a casual date, suddenly I was the first Jewish girl that didn’t remind them of their mother and do I want to get married.
Speaking of boys.
I recently followed a Norwegian one out to rural North Dakota, population six Jews and about 10,000 Scandinavian descendants. Things are quiet here, people are Midwestern nice, and the small town life is pretty darn wonderful.
For the first time in my life, I feel a bit like an oddball, in a sea of light-haired Lutherans, but people embrace me when I introduce them to challah. North Dakotans love challah! And I love their food too, like Lefse and dessert bars of all sorts.
All of my Challah here is homemade. As are my latkes, kugel, matzo balls… you get the picture. There’s not a deli in sight. Not even a bagel. I do miss bopping down to Zabar’s for babka and bagels, but on the other hand, with the necessity to make everything from scratch comes the opportunity to put my own spin on things and mash up my Chinese/Jewish/Midwesternness.
Brisket in my potstickers, ginger sugar beet latkes, egg rolls with home cured pastrami from a cow that I’ll one day raise…
I’m getting carried away.
Here is an Asian twist on my all time favorite challah. It’s inspired by the scallion pancake.
Makes one large loaf
Basic Challah Dough
Based on Food 52′s Recipe
1 tablespoon instant yeast
3/4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cups vegetable or canola oil
Filling and Topping
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2-3 stalks scallions or green onions, minced
salt, pepper, and red chili flakes to taste
Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
A few pinches of toasted sesame seeds and black sesame seeds
In a small bowl, proof yeast in 1/2 cup warm water mixed with 1 teaspoon of sugar.
While yeast is proofing, mix flour, salt, and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in a large bowl.
In a medium bowl, mix remaining 1/4 cup of water, honey, oil, and eggs.
Once yeast has finished proofing, add it to the flour, followed by the wet ingredients. Mix with a large wooden spoon until dough becomes too thick to stir. Empty dough onto well-floured surface and knead by hand. Knead dough until smooth and no longer sticky, adding flour as needed.
Transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with a damp towel. Let rise for about two hours, or until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 375.
Divide dough into three equal parts and then roll each part into a 1-foot log. Gently flatten each log so that it is about 3 inches wide.
Brush each with toasted sesame oil and then sprinkle with salt, pepper, chili flakes, and scallions. Roll them up length wise like a jellyroll, and then braid.
Place the loaf on a parchment lined baking sheet and then brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds and black pepper.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is golden brown and the challah is cooked through.
If you could only cook three dishes for Shabbat dinner what would they be?
This was the question we posed to culinary historian Michael “Kosher Soul” Twitty, author of the Afroculinaria blog and a Jewish educator. Twitty, who was most recently featured on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The African Americans on PBS will be the chef-in-residence at Be’chol Lashon’s upcoming retreat.
The Shabbes table is reminiscent of the way my grandmother would frame occasional Sunday dinners and holiday meals, white tablecloths and candles. So that Jewish esthetic makes sense to me. It engenders respect and sacredness. I would polish candlesticks and set out tablecloths. I’m not great at setting the table but how the food looked was important to my mother and my grandmother. Julius Lester says, “the Shabbes Table is a banquet for God.” The table becomes a crossroads between the divine and earth, a sacred circle. In both the African and Jewish Diasporas, the sacred circle, where multiple parts of ourselves meet, is an important theme. That is what helps make the table be a mizbeach, a holy alter. I find myself cooking for Shabbes with a great spirit of urgency and putting as much kedusha [holiness] as possible. People sometimes forget this ;— kedusha is the greatest spice.
If I could only cook three dishes it would have to be all the parts of who I am.
Number one would be Kasha Varnishkes. I make a mean kasha varnishkes in its pure form with onions browned and a little bit of garlic. Really earthy. I’m not a groats and seed feeder but there is something is very satisfying about a plate of kasha varnishkes. It is brothy, I use 3-4 kinds of onions. The whole garden goes in the broth. So simple and so pleasing.
In Jewish cooking you have foods dictated by text, food that the Torah talks about. Then you have foods that speak to the land of Israel and what grows there. Then you have foods that come from the places we have been, from our diaspora. And then there is identity cooking. The foods that are tied up with your sense of self and the place you are in, where you are and how you are connected to that place.
When I make kasha varnishkes, that is straight up s’htep food. When you can master traditions like that it is a way of saying I’m here. I’ve arrived here and I’m not going anywhere.
My second food would be barbecue beef ribs. Because you can’t get Blacker than barbecue. That is our unique contribution to American cuisine above the rest. It is not a food you make just because you feel like it. You make it for a special occasion. It makes your clothes smell a certain way. Your hands smell a certain way. You plan for it, work for it. And I don’t mean making it in the oven. You marinate it. You rub it. Out comes the hickory. It cooks for three to four hours and then you cut them up and there they go.
Barbecue connects me with my father and my grandfather. Very male food in terms of who made it. A patrilineal dish. We get it passed down to from our fathers, and from their fathers. I make two recipes, one more traditional; marinate forever, rub forever and smoke forever. And the other I call Yiddishe Ribbenes which takes all the flavors from all the parts of the Jewish Diaspora and makes the same flavor profile I grew up with. I like to do both.
For the third dish, I have to say Kosher Soul Rolls. Kosher soul rolls are Black Jewish egg rolls. Instead of cabbage, collard greens. Instead of ham or pork, I use pastrami. One thing Blacks and Jews have in common is loving Chinese food. Deep-fry them, of course.
Can I add a bread? My favorite challah recipe is the Beigel Family Challah from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today. It is best challah I’ve ever made or tasted so that’s the one I make. And every time I make the challah the story comes with it. This was a family that survived the Shoah and made their way to Israel. Tribute challah.