From Challah and Chulent to Chutney and Chipati

Through the food, history and culture of Jews around the world, a summer camp helps kids broaden their understanding of Jewish identity – and see that being Jewish is more than skin-deep.

by Marcella White Campbell Brandes

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The author’s family at Maia’s bat mitzvah.

I’m a food-first person – I start thinking about dinner while I’m eating breakfast. So in the early days of my journey to Judaism, as soon as I began to plan my week around Shabbat, I planned my Shabbat around the meal itself. Back then, I believed I’d only really be Jewish once I was indistinguishable from other Jews. I assumed the majority of my predominantly Ashkenazi community ate challah and chicken soup on Shabbat, so I did, too. Cooking the “right” things, I thought, meant being really Jewish, something I ardently desired.

As I grew into my faith, however, I began to see things a little differently. After all, our family isn’t quite like everyone else’s. My husband’s ancestors come from Russia and Romania on his mother’s side, while on his father’s side he can trace his ancestors back to medieval France. Mean-while, my ancestors hail from Arkansas and Louisiana, while their ancestors were taken from mysterious locales in Western Africa. I could bake as much challah as I liked, but we’d never be indistinguishable from the rest of our community. It felt like I was fighting a losing battle, both in and outside my kitchen. Then one day, I happened upon a book that would change everything. Predictably, it was a cookbook.

Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food opened my eyes to a world beyond my rigid Shabbat menu. Through the foods and histories of Jewish communities throughout the world, I began to broaden my definition of what it meant to cook like everyone else – and to question whether it was necessary to be exactly like everyone else. With Roden as my guide, I began to expand my repertoire. If indeed cholent and chutney could both be called Jewish foods, perhaps it was no less extraordinary for my own family – brought together by America’s diversity – to make a Jewish home. I couldn’t point to generations of observance on my side of the family, but exploring the Jewish world at the Shabbat table was a personal tradition that I could pass on.

While I was happily cooking my way toward accepting my own difference, I wasn’t so certain about my two children. My oldest daughter was approaching her teenage years, and my son was close behind. They were happy to eat my elaborate Friday dinners, but I was increasingly aware that I couldn’t literally feed them their own Jewish identities. They would have to ?nd their own way, and they would, not at the Shabbat table, but at camp.

My children spend every summer at Camp Be’chol Lashon. In some ways, it’s like any other summer camp. They swim in the lake, hike the Northern California foothills, and trade friendship bracelets. Unlike other summer camps, however, at Camp Be’chol Lashon, my children travel the Jewish world.

Each day, using Be’chol Lashon’s Passport to Peoplehood curriculum, campers explore the sounds and tastes of a new country, and its historic and contemporary Jewish heritage. Passports in hand, they “travel” the world in the footsteps of our ancestors, visiting places as far off as Colombia, Russia and Uganda. At each stop, they move one step closer to understand-ing their own place in the Jewish diaspora.

Every summer, campers learn about the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda. Until recently, the Abayudaya celebrated Shabbat with chapati, a traditional Ugandan ?atbread that smells as delicious frying on a griddle as my challah smells browning in the oven. (Today, many Abayudaya include challah, too.) With every mouthful of warm chapati, campers learn it’s possible to embrace the new without losing sight of tradition. That lesson underlies the history of the Abayudaya.

Originally founded in 1919, this community spent the 1970s oppressed by Idi Amin. Since the fall of the regime, their community has blossomed, synthesizing new, egalitarian ideas with traditional Ugandan ones. They’re led in this effort by Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. Ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2008, Sizomu is the ?rst native-born black rabbi in sub-Saharan Africa. For campers, Rabbi Sizomu adds a personal dimension to this story of change, serving as a living example of Jewish diversity.

Passport to Peoplehood encourages campers to make connections between individual Jewish role models and their own personal experiences. At the same time, it educates them about the diversity of modern Judaism, linking them to contemporary Jewish communities around the world. Thus, once they travel from Uganda to Colombia, they’ll be introduced to another role model, Rabbi Juan Meija.

Born and raised in Colombia, Rabbi Mejía discovered that he was the descendant of anusim, forced converts from the Inquisition. His desire to learn more about his ancestors led him from Bogotà to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ultimately ordained. Rabbi Mejía has focused his rabbinate on teaching Torah to Spanish-speaking Jews, helping those who want to understand Judaism learn and connect, whatever their historical heritage. Through the camp’s parent organization (also called Be’chol Lashon) Rabbi Mejía works with Jews throughout Latin America and helps organize travel so American Jews can experience Jewish peoplehood ?rst hand. Learning about Rabbi Mejía’s story and work, campers begin to see that diversity is an essential part of the contemporary Jewish world.

Passport to Peoplehood is a hands-on, experiential curriculum. Campers don’t just sit and listen; they physically engage with history and culture. So while “visiting” Colombia, they dance and listen to the rhythms of cumbia, then prepare and eat fried plantains. Exciting all their senses fully immerses them in a global Judaism that continues to broaden and deepen their growing Jewish identities.

Over the course of the summer, campers draw parallels between past and present Jewish communities. As they stamp their passports, moving on to China or Iran or India, discovering and tasting new worlds feels more and more natural. At camp, they explore the ways in which Jewish communities are both alike and different. Once they’re back home, they’re not surprised to see that same diversity in their own communities. Meanwhile, they see their own differences in the context of a greater Jewish history of tolerance, resilience and change.

When my children return from camp, they’ll uncover and bless loaves of challah at our Shabbat table, just like most other members of our community. These days, however, that experience is enriched by the knowledge that they don’t have to be like everyone else. They know we could choose to say motzi over chapati or Ethiopian injera, and they know that they can be Jewish while still honoring their ancestors from Russia, and France and West Africa. Paradoxically, by learning to celebrate difference, they see what they and other Jews really have in common. With that in mind, I think our dinner is even more delicious now, whatever the menu.

Marcella White Campbell Brandes is managing editor of Be’chol Lashon, an organization that works around issues of racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in the Jewish community through curriculum, workshops about race and identity, trips and camp. GlobalJews.org.