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 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.