Shabbat falls on June 19th this year, coinciding with Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the liberation of enslaved Americans and the end of slavery. I’ve chosen to celebrate both holidays this year and I encourage you to as well. Tema Smith argues that American Jews should celebrate Juneteenth every year, and this year, with all of its pain and struggle and grief and potential for change, is definitely the time to start. Shabbat is a time for celebration, but also reflection and study. Juneteenth Shabbat provides us with the opportunity to learn about and grapple with the legacy of slavery in America.
Never celebrated Juneteenth? Me neither. That’s why I turned culinary historian, chef, and author Michael Twitty. Michael Twitty is a James Beard Award-winner who wrote The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South.
Michael has explored slavery and food in-depth, including spending a day picking cotton in Virginia and cooking traditional recipes in period clothing, to better understand and bring to life the experience of enslaved people. He is currently working on his second book, Kosher Soul, which will explore the intersection between Jewish and African American cuisines.
I wanted to celebrate Juneteenth in a way that fully honored and respected this history, and Michael provided me with a recipe and some history.
Red foods are an important Juneteenth tradition, a symbol of perseverance dating back to the West African ancestors of enslaved Americans. Red soda, hibiscus tea and punch, watermelon, strawberries, and red velvet cake are often featured. BBQ and BBQ sauce, peaches, and sweet potatoes are also traditional.
This week I’ll be cooking Michael Twitty’s Peach BBQ sauce, spreading it on chicken thighs, and grilling over charcoal. I’ll pair it with vinegary red coleslaw, sweet potatoes, and hibiscus iced tea. For dessert, we’ll have red velvet cupcakes with coconut whipped cream. While we are celebrating Shabbat, we will also be celebrating the liberation of enslaved Americans. You can learn more about Michael Twitty’s thoughts on Juneteenth from his interview with The Forward this week.
Jews wrestle. It’s what we are commanded to do. It’s what we are best at. Jacob wrestled with the angel. Scholars wrestle with our texts. All of us wrestle with how to be good people, good Jews. This Shabbat, we need to wrestle with slavery. We need to wrestle with the history of American racism and with how we have at times benefited from the structures of white supremacy, even while facing antisemitism. We need to wrestle with how a place that has been a refuge for so many American Jews, a place we fled to, is also a place where millions of people lived in chains.
When Americans talk about African American history, we only want to talk about the victories. We want to skip to the end and applaud the moments where injustice is defeated because it validates the grand American story. It’s celebrating that we are a nation that ended slavery - but never acknowledging that we were the ones who bought, sold, and brutalized millions of people for economic gain.
Juneteenth Shabbat is an opportunity to celebrate liberation and community and a chance to ground ourselves in the root causes of injustice. It is a time where we can look at this current uprising against racism and force ourselves to examine the system of slavery, and how its legacy continues in every case of police brutality, every instance of discrimination.
The biases we hold today stem directly from how Americans tried to justify slavery. We needed these ideas of black as inferior, as criminal, as lazy, as innately less human, in order to justify slavery. The idea that black people are innately less human persists, with devastating and deadly consequences across our nation. We cannot truly address police brutality or any other manifestation of racism without a national reckoning with this history. Juneteenth is a moment where we can force ourselves to confront our history
This Shabbat, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating both Shabbat and Juneteenth. I hope you’ll celebrate it with the food you put on the table, but more importantly that you’ll spend some time learning about slavery and thinking about what you can contribute to the fight to dismantle systemic racism. Read something you never read before. Just this week, no Talmud or Torah.
Read Frederick Douglas or Sojourner Truth instead. Give tzedakah to an organization fighting for racial justice. Make plans to march for justice and advocate for change. Remember that when we fight for black lives and black liberation, we are not only fighting for justice for another community, we are also fighting for our own community, which has Black Jewish people in it.
It is not enough to fight for a better America on a policy level, we must fight for a Jewish community that lives anti-racism in our lives and in our institutions. This Juneteenth, this Shabbat, we must begin to wrestle with our history, to learn it, to understand it, so we can change our nation’s future.
Shabbat Shalom. Happy Juneteenth. May the coming weeks bring a better America for us all.
Michael Twitty’s Peach BBQ Sauce
This delicious recipe, filled with sweet peaches and warm spices, pairs well with chicken, lamb, fish or spicy roasted vegetables.
½ cup Vidalia onion or other sweet onion
¼ cup minced celery
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon crushed minced ginger
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon seasoning salt, such as garlic salt or onion salt
¾ cup tomato paste
½ cup peach nectar
½ cup grated peaches
¼ cup low sodium soy sauce
A teaspoon of kitchen pepper ( Michael Twitty’s special spice mix, recipe follows below)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup brown mustard
2 tablespoons oil
Saute together in saucepan onions, celery, carrot, garlic, ginger, a teaspoon or so of kosher or sea salt and oil. Saute over medium-low heat until onions and celery are translucent. Be attentive, don’t let it burn.
Mix tomato paste with peach nectar. Add tomato and peach nectar mixture, peaches, soy sauce, kitchen pepper, brown sugar, brown mustard, seasoning salt, paprika, and black pepper. Stir continuously and bring to a boil. Please lower the heat and cover. Stir every 5 minutes for 45 minutes.
Michael Twitty’s Kitchen Spice
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 tablespoon ground Guinea pepper or ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Combine spices and mix well.