We are often told that Jews are a people of the book, but new works by Michael W. Twitty and coauthors Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman demonstrate that Jewish stories aren’t only told in writing. Through cooking and sewing, for example, we pass along history, build community, and help to ensure Jewish survival.
In Shaunna J. Edwards’s and Alyson Richman’s The Thread Collectors—a mesmerizing novel about family and the power of interracial female friendship during the American Civil War — embroidery and quilting become means of communicating love as well as escape routes on the Underground Railroad. Michael W. Twitty’s magnificent Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew is a memoir, a wide-ranging collection of recipes, and an examination of how food makes a people.
In conversation, the three authors speak to the importance of the homemade in exploring the lives of people often left out of Jewish narratives.
Laura Arnold Leibman: Both recipes and sewing techniques are often passed down orally. My own grandmother’s written recipes are basically useless to people not in the know, since they are just a list of ingredients. The maps that Stella quilts in The Thread Collectors are safer in part because they require some interpretative knowledge. How does oral tradition preserve memory differently from written works? What does it mean to take oral knowledge and write it down?
Shaunna J. Edwards: In The Thread Collectors, Stella’s maps convey messages through a visual language that doesn’t include the written word because enslaved men and women weren’t allowed to learn to read or write. Instead, Stella ingeniously utilizes color — such as red to flag an area that should be avoided, or green to show a safe route. She also uses a running stitch to reinforce a suggested path toward freedom and repeats the letter x to mark places that need to be avoided at all costs.
Alyson Richman: It was so important for us to show how hard it was for the Black characters in The Thread Collectors to communicate safely during this incredibly dangerous time. One poignant scene in the book also shows how oral tradition can impact us more powerfully than the written word. When William is forced to witness hundreds of his fellow soldiers die and remain unburied for days, he’s on the brink of despair. William can’t read, so a written prayer would have been useless to him, but he finds comfort when Jacob recites Kaddish out loud and helps him find a place to channel his grief.
Michael W. Twitty: We also see this relationship between Written and Oral Torah, oddly enough. “Take this … tree” — okay, and do what with it? LOL. That’s why you need to incorporate multiple streams of tradition when you cook. Part of the knowledge is seeing it done — using your senses of smell, hearing, and taste — and then using sensory memory to deliver consistency. Grandma cooking is rooted in that. It’s not instinctual … you just learn to make it feel that way.
LAL: When I cook for someone, I feel like I’m giving them a bit of myself (though admittedly some days it’s a cranky, tired bit of myself). Can you talk about the costs and benefits of this sort of giving as a writer?
SJE: We had been dreaming of writing a Civil War story together for years, but we didn’t start working on The Thread Collectors until the pandemic — against the backdrop of rising calls for social and racial justice. We fell into a rhythm of writing together very naturally, with each of us taking the lead on sections about the history of our respective communities. There are some difficult scenes in our book — ones of brutal anti-Black violence and raw antisemitism — and they are all based on historical occurrences. We wanted our novel to be accurate, so we did a lot of research. I stood on the battlefields of Port Hudson, where hundreds of Black men died needlessly. Alyson read General Grant’s deeply antisemitic wartime declaration, General Order No. 11, which was directed at cotton speculators, but gave all Jews in Peducah, Kentucky just twenty-four hours to abandon their homes and businesses, and the lives they knew.
AR: General Order No. 11 was considered the most anti-Jewish regulation in all of American history, and it was only rescinded when President Lincoln stepped in. We also wanted to expose the antisemitic rhetoric that Jewish soldiers sometimes encountered from their fellow soldiers in the Union Army, which was inevitable given that the government was also driving discrimination at the time. It was painful to learn that the word “shoddy” became an antisemitic slur at this time – it was often evoked to suggest that Jewish merchants were responsible for furnishing the Union forces with low-grade cloth for their uniforms in order to obtain a higher profit margin.
Even though we were trying to create a work of beauty, our creative process was steeped in that reality. Though it was personally exhausting for us at times, we knew it was important to amplify these dark chapters in history.
LAL: Can we talk a bit about community? In The Thread Collectors, Lily “corrals” the young women she knows into sewing items for soldiers. Women’s sewing circles were on the rise during the nineteenth century, and even today sewing remains an important way for people to stay connected. Michael, you write about how you have used cooking as a mode of teaching and moving across generational and racial boundaries. Could you tell me more about the role cooking and sewing play in community building? How do these art forms change the way we connect?
MWT: First we have conversations. Conversations are not acts of surrender; they are opportunities. If we work together, cook together, and eat together, white supremacy and injustice — our common enemies — will lose. We can help solve each other’s problems and be more aware of and present in each other’s lives. Cooking has that magical potential.
If we work together, cook together, and eat together, white supremacy and injustice — our common enemies — will lose.
SJE: Coming together to create something always brings a sense of community, and shared purpose can often bridge the deepest of divides. I’ve seen community and lineage quite literally in my family’s quilts, pieced together from dresses worn by my female relatives and ancestors. My mother would point to colors and note that a remnant may have come from her grandmother’s field dress, and another from her mother’s apron. Stitched together, the quilts serve as a reminder that on your own, you might not have enough to go around, but with the help of others, you can wrap a family in security and comfort. Marginalized communities like those of Jewish and Black people have often had to rely on pooled resources. While it may be done out of necessity at times, we hope that our book will inspire readers to do it out of love — and in doing so, create new bonds.
LAL: Flag quilts were very popular during the Civil War, and Lily makes one for Jacob in The Thread Collectors. Over the course of the novel, you bring new associations to our understanding of stars on the American flag, so that the stars on the quilt are no longer just a sign of Northern nationalism. Can you talk a bit about what stars mean and why you chose to play with that symbol?
AR: It is intentional that our book begins with a star, our heroine Stella. Not only is she named for Shaunna’s mother, Stella; she is also meant to be a guiding light for William and other enslaved men who are braving the journey to freedom. We were excited by the idea of stars, and continued to pull that motif through our novel. The stars on the quilt Lily makes for Jacob are not only a reference to solidarity with the Union Army, but also to the more poetic belief that we are all looking up at the same star-filled sky. Lily hopes to communicate to her husband that they are bonded despite the distance. And during scenes on the battlefields, William, Teddy, and their fellow Black soldiers sometimes sleep without any shelter other than the night stars.
LAL: In her 2021 book All That She Carried, Tiya Miles emphasizes the ways in which an artifactual history (a history written through objects) provides insight into how people have experienced and shaped history. Alyson and Shaunna, to what extent might we think of your book as an artifactual story?
AR: This idea that emotion and history can be pressed into objects is a cornerstone of The Thread Collectors. Even before the publication of All That She Carried, we were impacted by the knowledge of the powerful artifact Tiya Miles discusses — a flour sack that was handed down three generations and eventually stitched with the family’s oral history by the original owner’s granddaughter, Ruth. Ruth wanted to record her grandmother’s story of packing the sack with things she hoped would help her daughter survive when she was sold into slavery (a handful of pecans, a cotton dress). Ruth also wanted to record her grandmother’s deep maternal love, which the grandmother hoped would transcend the traumatic rending of their family.
While writing our book, we drew on our own family stories passed down by our mothers and grandmothers. That said, we also wanted to explore these histories more deeply, revealing painful truths that had remained unsaid. For me, the novel became a way to open up the permanent fracture within my family that happened when two brothers took different positions on slavery and enlisted on opposite sides during the Civil War.
SJE: I also wanted to examine the divides and diverging fates within my family. The character of Stella was partially inspired by my own great-great-great aunt, who managed to become a financially independent landowner while the rest of her relatives struggled to find economic stability. I wanted to delve into how skin color afforded opportunities to some that remained wholly unavailable to others.
Many of the objects in our book are vessels for personal history and emotions that are too difficult to be expressed in words — from a handkerchief that Stella embroiders for William, hoping that it will offer him protection; to the maps that she creates to guide others to safety; to a drum that gives a new sense of camaraderie and identity to a Black boy who arrives at the enlistment camp with nothing but the clothes on his back.
LAL: Michael, one of the things that I appreciate about Koshersoul is your honesty about how people and communities don’t always live up to their ideals — and that this failure causes real harm. What lessons do all of you hope readers will take away from your books?
AR: We wanted to show that no one’s effort is meaningless. Stella’s older sister, Ammanee, is an enslaved woman. Despite this constraint, she is constantly seeking to help the Union Army and other Black people. Whether it means cooking for “contraband” camps of enslaved people who have fled, or passing along bits of overheard Confederate intel, she is determined to lead a life of purpose. Lily is another character who is compelled to improve society for the better. She is prosperous, but she initially doubts her ability to make an impact on society. Meeting her mentor, Ernestine Rose, a real-life Jewish abolitionist and suffragist, inspires Lily to act in a way that defies expectations about her class and gender. The world is again confronting significant challenges, and each of us has the obligation to do what we can.
MWT: The important thing is not to fantasize. Be real about the challenges and differences. Blacks and Jews (wherever they fall on a Venn diagram) have adjacent struggles and issues and even histories. Adjacent never equals exactly the same. I think honesty is the best policy in intergroup relations. It’s also key to be real about falling short of our best and the legacies passed down to us. Antisemitism and anti-Blackness are ours to eradicate.
Laura Arnold Leibman is professor of English and Humanities at Reed College. Her numerous books have won four National Jewish Book Awards and a Jordan Schnitzer Book Award. She is the academic director of the multimedia television series American Passages, which won a Hugo Award.