Friday, April 15, 2011

Passover: A Time for Reflections on Slavery and Racism

When Passover rolls around, I inevitably start thinking about slavery, and not just of Jewish people. This year however, the thinking and talking about slavery as well as racism and oppression has been at the forefront of my mind for more than a few months.

One challenge that I find not only in my food justice work, but also in life, is that so few people, of any race think deeply about the subtleties of racism and it's prevalence in our society. I look at everything through a lens of race, and I am white and Jewish. I notice when a school teacher chooses more white children to answer a question, or uses a harsher tone with a black child than a white one. I notice when a dark skinned black man on the subway calls my light-skinned husband cousin, rather than brother. I could go on and on, but a recent experience has gotten me pondering all of this in a slightly different way.
A few months ago I began participating in a clinical study of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder  as a result of the Holocaust, (my grandparents are survivors of the Nazi death camp, Sobibor). This study was conducted on 2nd generation survivors (like my mother) and has shown that genetic markers of PTSD are passed down from 1st generation survivors to their children. The study is now being reopened to study the effects on 3rd generation survivors like myself. I do not doubt that there are things that have been passed on to me as a result of my grandparent's horrific experiences in a Nazi death camp. Whether they are learned or genetic, I will leave to the researchers. However, the thing that strikes me is that we live in a society that was founded on genocide and slavery, literally, yet very few people are studying the affects of this trauma on black Americans. Or Native Americans.  If a few years of horrific trauma from the Holocaust is passed on genetically to future generations, what would the effects of trauma be over decades, centuries and generations, of 300-500 years on the descendants of Africans and Native Americans in this country?

Part of the work I do is food justice and food access in urban communities.  I recently spoke on a panel about obesity in New Haven which was followed by a panel on violence, specifically gun violence in the city which has been increasing at an alarming rate. It seemed to me that people listening to our two panels were asking themselves: "what is the point of trying to get people to eat healthy food when their biggest concern every day is whether or not they are going to get shot?".  I left this conference feeling like we missed the opportunity to discuss how the solutions for dealing with obesity and food issues in our communities go hand in hand with the solutions for ending violence and trauma. The problems facing urban, low income communities, and people of color, are complex, and  racism  whether overt or implicit runs through most of them. Working towards wellness of individuals and communities, rather than just against violence is important. Having access to, and the ability to eat good fresh food is a right not a privilege, and nourishment is an integral part of the healing process for people who live in neighborhoods where guns and prison are prominent parts of daily life.

The effects of trauma on generations after generations of people is real, and if we are going to heal from any of it we need to acknowledge that.  The effects of racism on black people, white people and all people of this country is deep, it pervades everything. Most of the manifestations of it these days are more subtle than many people are able to comprehend, but we will never get past the segregation and deep inequalities in this country until many more people start to have a real understanding about racism in our lives today.

Each year, many Jews sit around the passover seder table and retell the story of their exodus from slavery as a reminder of our history. If only the story of the African Slave Trade and the Native American Genocide were retold at dinner tables across this country as a reminder of all of our history as well. I can only imagine the effects that could have on our society, and our perception of our neighbors, friends and strangers.

I know the jump to cooking and holiday recipes may be stark after the words I have written above. But, all I can think is that spring is a time of renewal, a time to look at the darkness we have come out of and the light that we hope to move into, and that food is an essential, vital part of life, in times of slavery and in times of freedom.

Some great holiday recipes from years past:

Lemon Cardamom tofu with pistachios and roasted lemons*
Grind: 3 cloves garlic, 1 teaspoon cardamom pods, 1 teaspoon caraway seeds, 1teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper corns, 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (optional), 1/4 cup olive oil and 1 bunch cilantro. Toss on 2 pounds of sliced extra firm tofu. Roast on a lined baking pan at 400 degrees for 30 minutes or until golden brown. squeeze the juice of one lemon over tofu when removed from oven.  Thinly slice one lemon, brush with oil, and roast on a lined baking pan along with the tofu, until browned, or place under the broiler until lightly charred. toast pistachios. Toss everything together and enjoy. Serve warm or at room temperature. This dish could also be made with chicken or lamb replacing the tofu.

French Lentils with roasted apples and onions*
Boil 4 cups of french lentils in 12 cups of water with a teaspoon of salt and half an onion. When lentils are tender, drain, discard onion and drizzle lentils with olive oil. Slice 3 onions into wedges, toss with oil, salt and pepper and spread in a single layer on a line baking pan. Repeat this process with 4 firm apples. Roast apples and onions at 400 degrees until browned on edges (apples will be done before onions). Toss lentils, apples and onions together and serve room temperature or warm. Fresh thyme or blanched or roasted asparagus would also be a nice addition.
*tofu and lentils are not eaten by some Ashkenazi Jews during passover. these two recipes were actually from a Hanukkah celebration, but they are great vegetarian dishes for people who do eat these bean products on passover. In both cases, meat can be substituted for the tofu or lentils to make it more kosher.

Chicken Soup - the basics 
(add your own matzo balls!)

Click the link above for instructions on making chicken stock. If you don't have left over chicken bones for stock, you can use inexpensive but flavorful cuts like thighs, legs, wings and necks to make great soup. You can brown the meat or not, depending on your preference, and if you leave the skin on you will render the schmaltz (fat) into your broth, which you can chill, and scoop off for use in your matzo balls. Last year I bought a box of matzo ball mix, and followed the directions, using seltzer, like my Oma, and cooking them in water that had simmered with some carrots, celery, onions and salt "so they won't soak up all the soup" as my Oma always said. Don't lift the top on the matzo balls while they are cooking, this is key to getting a fluffy rather than rock-hard texture.

The Best Flourless Chocolate Cake 
made with sweet potatoes
       This recipe is a real winner!
Almond Cardamom Cake
I made this last year for the first time, altering a recipe from an Iranian Seder found in the NY Times. I removed the 1 tablespoon of matzo meal to make it gluten free, and added some pistachios and lemon zest. It was moist, light and very flavorful!

Yield: One 9-inch cake
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus additional for the pan
7 large eggs, separated
3 cups almonds(or part pistachios) or 3 1/3cups finely ground nuts
1 cup sugar
2 teapoons ground cardamom
1 tablespoon almond extract
zest from one lemon
confectioners' sugar for dusting

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 9-inch spring form pan or a 9-inch square pan and set aside. Using a stand mixer, whisk egg whites until stiff but not dry, and set aside.
2. Using a large food processor, pulse almonds until very finely ground, stirring once or twice to prevent them from turning into a paste. In a medium bowl, combine egg yolks and sugar, and whisk till blended and pale. Add ground almonds and cardamom. Add almond extract and 1/2 cup oil. Gently fold in egg whites.
3. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from pan and finish cooling on a rack. To decorate, dust with confectioners’ sugar.

Please share thoughts on any part of this (long and involved) blog post!


  1. Really though-provoking post Tagan! I have often discussed the cultural impacts of our traumatic ancestral legacy with one of my black friends. How amazing it is that the fear is still myself and most of my Jewish friends seem pre-destined to anxiety, even if there is not a direct link to the Holocaust. That fear seems to manifest itself differently in black culture, but it is still there. I think about it all from a new perspective too, now that I am carrying a child of mixed race and the responsibility that entails.

    Great recipes too...I might try one for Passover!

  2. thanks so much for this. i just went to a great lecture (by the historian/scholar robin d. kelley, who teaches sociology and african american studies at USC and has written a bunch of books, including a great recent thelonious monk bio). he was talking about his research into the work of the journalist/author grace halsell, a white woman who, among other things, wrote a number of books in which she posed as "other" (black, native american, mexican immigrant, hyper-conservative christian) and observed the way she was treated. it was inspiring to hear this story about someone who was trying so hard and so creatively to debunk all of these notions of humans not all being as one, and beginning to do so before it was even "hip."

  3. Tagan,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on slavery, racism, food justice, and healing from violence. I've been thinking some of these thoughts too, and so happy to see you putting them all together. As a Jew who was not raised Jewish, I don't have a personal attachment to the seder. But I've been celebrating it for a few years now with friends, and my children. I would like to see (create?) a seder that does recount other histories, other stories of oppression and resistance and survival, other tales of the move into light from darkness. For my own experience as an American first, who is also so many other identities and ethnicities, the story of the peoples of this land is so important. The words we say in the seder, of remembering slavery and working to end discrimination anywhere we see it, are the ones I would like to see amplified in our own celebrations. We have opportunities to recognize and remedy such injustice every single day in our contemporary world. That is the lesson I would like to pass on to my own children. Thank you for beginning this distillation of ideas with me!
    Love and respect,

  4. Thank you all for the comments! I am glad that this spoke to each of you. There is so much more to say of course, but it felt very important to start to address these issues more publicly. Thank you all for thinking and speaking about race and justice in our communities.

    @jessica, I feel it is such a blessing to the world to have mixed race children. It has been very interesting to me because I was prepared to have brown children, and both of my kids look white to most people. The discussions about race, heritage and the complexity of all of it is very interesting at different ages.

    Thanks for reading!!

  5. This was wonderful and has given me a lot to think about. I think some traditions do a better job of placing a time for remembering, even mourning, within celebrations then others, and it's such an important way to learn and honor.

  6. Hell Yes! Thank you for saying it so eloquently. I agree that trauma is passed down through generations. We all carry pieces of it, like stones in our pockets, weighing us down, and preventing us from ending systems of oppression. We all have healing to do, and we need to do it together.

  7. I have to thank all of you wonderful people, friends and family and strangers who have responded so well to this post on the blog, email and Facebook! Most of my extended family informed me that they read this post at their Passover Seders, which is very touching. It is also so meaningful to me that so many white and jewish people responded well to this. Slowly slowly, things can change. Thank you all.

  8. Like Jessica said, " thought -provoking" and yes, thanks for sharing.