n Friday I will set the table for Shabbat, a time of gathering with loved ones to rejoice in our freedom together and the community we’ve built. For 25 hours, I will celebrate abundance with them. We will eat, play games, relax and connect. We’ll intentionally gather out of love, and it’s in this gathering that I will wonder about the pain it took to get here.
As a Queer, Black and Jewish person, it’s clear that my identities carry trauma. It’s also clear that these identities hold gatherings as a means to process and heal trauma, as well as find freedom and joy in community.
How did we move from pain into freedom?
Culinary historian and author Michael Twitty once said at a Shabbat that to be Black and Jewish is to know how to run. Twitty’s work traces the foodways — or practices relating to consumption and production of food — of the African diaspora. His statement evoked a visceral reaction to me as I realized that I, too, knew how to run. The grandchild of holocaust survivors on my mom’s side, grandchild of a poor, blue collar family on my dad’s, and a Queer person in a heteronormative world, the constant fear of forced displacement has rested in my blood.
This sparked a desire to dive deep into the narratives of Jewish and Black cuisine, and how our foods were made out of survival. I wanted to know how food connected us to bondange. And I wanted to know how food could be connected to our liberation. As I grow my Jewish identity, and weave it with my Blackness and Queerness, I’m finding grounding in Shabbat as a pathway to liberation for my identities.
Shabbat, in its simplest form, is the period of rest following the work week, referencing the creation of heaven and Earth in six days, with G-d taking the 7th day to rest. In essence, it is a celebration of freedom. Freedom from labor, and freedom from the rhythm of daily life. It also is a period of renewal. We wind down at sunset on Friday and detach the week that’s passed. We rest until sunset on Saturday and then begin a Havdalah service, which signals the end of Shabbat and the beginning of a new week, symbolizing a new period of creation.
A time of gathering and celebration, the foods served on Shabbat are meant to bring comfort and joy to all who sit at the table. Served in courses, the average meal consists of warm soups, baked chicken or braised brisket, wholesome salads, hearty grains and challah — a staple bread at every Shabbat. Jewish law commands that we don’t consume meat and dairy together in our meals, calling it unethical to cook an animal's offspring in its mother’s milk. Because of this, some Shabbat meals are made without meat; fish, like salmon, is used in lieu, and dairy sides can be made to accompany it. As people begin to adopt vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, they’re also creating more opportunities for plant-based shabbats.
I also want to point out that the foods I’m sharing come from an Ashkenazi Jewish context, meaning from Eastern and Northern Europe. The three main ethnic divisions of the Jewish diaspora are Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim. Sephardim can descend from Spain or Portugal, as well as North Africa, Southern Europe and Western Asia. Mizrahim can come from communities within the Middle East, such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, as well as North Africa too. I say this to honor that Shabbat doesn’t look the same to all Jews, and it’s the diversity of foods that could be on a table under the framework of Shabbat that liberates us.
As a Queer Black Jew — or Queer Afro-Jew as I’ve been called — I find freedom in being able to bring aspects of my cultures to the table. It’s interesting to talk about freedom in the context of Black cuisine, more so because Black cuisine, even American cusine, as we know it today was born from bondage (chattel slavery).
Rice, red beans, and okra are some staples that were brought here out of pain and survival. Slave owners knew that our ancestors wouldn’t have survived their journey without their crops, so the seeds were brought with them to grow on the plantations. Additionally, during this time, food was rationed for slaves and they’d often get the cuts of meat that the owners didn’t want. Ham hocks, chitterlings, ribs and more were given, forcing the slaves to often make something out of nothing, a phrase that queer people of color also identify with all too well. These, however, gave birth to the “soul food” that we love today. Smoked meat mixed with our greens, barbequed ribs, and hoppin john are just a few dishes that came from our forced labor.
As Black folk, we’re reminded of this history in the kitchen. For others, this is forgotten among the rise of “southern cooking.” In his interview with Epicurious, Adrian Miller remarks, “what happened at that moment was that ‘soul’ became Black and ‘Southern’ became white, and we’re still living with the legacy of that today.” Although the ramifications of slavery continue to erase our contributions to this country, our culinary creations have given us space to establish a new paradigm for our history and culture.
Somehow, with resilience, our ancestors found moments of autonomy in their capture. The lack of good meat they were given, and having the knowledge base for agriculture, led them to plant diverse bountiful crops, and secure meat through fishing or hunting fowl instead. This expanded our cuisine to include catfish, salmon, barbequed chicken, heirloom vegetables and more.
Resilience, or the ability to recover from difficulties, is also apparent in Jewish history.
The Jewish people have been through iterations of entrapment, and our rituals remind us that throughout each year. On Shabbat, we have two loaves of challah to symbolize the double portions of “manna,” or bread, that fell from the sky right before Shabbat during Exodus. The story of Exodus represents our ancestors’ liberation from Egypt. On Passover, another Jewish holiday commemorating Exodus, we eat foods that remind us of our bondage. We dip herbs in salt water to taste the tears of slaves, and eat horseradish to remind us the bitterness of slavery. Concurrently we read the Haggadah (written) to tell the story of Passover as we experience it through its food.
Black and Jewish experiences are rooted in histories of trauma — and while our foods remind us of that history, it is our creative resilience that gives us plates of freedom. It is from this legacy of resilience that Queerness follows.
On the heels of the Civil Rights movement was the Gay liberation movement, which was born from oppression that Queer folks experienced from familial relations to government policies and police brutality. While cuisine may not be inherent to Queer culture in ways that are easily identifiable, I would argue that gathering is a core value that we hold. Coming together in hidden spaces led us to organize for our own liberation.
While there is a debate about who threw the brick at Stonewall, or whether there was a brick at all, it’s evident that the organization of queer and trans people of color (QTPoC) is what’s put us on the pathway to liberation.
QTPoC have been moving us from bondage and into freedom, and it is their ability to fuse the personal and political under the framework of gathering that has carried us this far. This was manifested in the Stonewall riots. It is manifested in our Pride marches. It is manifested in our protests and art today. Their leadership gathered us to reclaim the politicization of our bodies and expand our language for how we communicate about our bodies.
Today, we gather to acknowledge the pain we’ve experienced, and we rejoice in the freedoms we’ve fought for. What’s a better place to gather and rejoice than at the dinner table?
As I set the table for Shabbat, I carry the trials of my identities. I carry their stories, I carry their pain, I carry their resilience, and I carry their joy. As I gather my community to celebrate the abundance we have together, I realize that we are no longer running. Shabbat is grounding us. Community, connection and liberation are all around me, and they taste so good.
At the intersection of Blackness, Jewishness, and Queerness, I find Shabbat to be a practice that grounds me in comfort and joy. We gather with our loved ones to celebrate abundance, life, and freedom. To me, Shabbat is a pathway to what liberation looks like for marginalized folx. It gives us all a seat at the table, a table we co-created. It’s a whole plate of freedom that nourishes our bodies and our souls.
I’m honored to share this delicious, inspiring and liberating tradition with you. I hope you find freedom in it too.