Editor's note: This piece - a little-known lesson in African American drinkways - was originally delivered as a presentation at the 2008 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium on the Liquid South. It was later printed in Cornbread Nation 5. Today's installment comes courtesy of John Simpkins, Fellow of Comparative Constitutional Law at the Charleston School of Law.
I've been black since birth. I'm not sure how long I've been a Jew. "You're the only black person I know who can quote Woody Allen movies," said my Jewish friend, Peter, when I asked him to assess my Jewishness. "I only quote from the early good ones," I explained. "And those I love. In fact, love is too weak a word for what I feel. I more than love them. I 'lurve' them."
"Sammy Davis Jr. was your favorite member of the Rat Pack," Peter continued, pressing his case. "You even sent your three-year-old to summer camp at the Jewish Community Center. He recognizes the Israeli flag, can sing the dreidel song, and is constantly asking for challah. If you're not Jewish, Jonah certainly is."
I know why I'm black, but it was harder to figure out why I'm a Jew. As with so many voyages of personal discovery, the search for my Inner Jew begins with food and drink. For me, any discussion of food has to include Sundays with my grandmother. Mama Sena's house in Lexington, South Carolina, was the Sunday dinner gathering place for the eighteen of us first cousins, who spanned a twenty-three year age range and felt more like siblings than cousins. Because she was a church lady, there was little work actually done in Mama Sena's house on the Sabbath. She even refused to allow anyone to wash clothes on Sunday for fear that "someone could be washed out of the family." It is primarily for this reason that I spent most of my childhood fearing washing machines as agents of death.
The fruits of the labors of the rest of the week, however, were in abundance. The standard Sunday menu featured cucumbers in white vinegar, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, ham, rice, gravy, and stew beef, ending in a lemon chiffon ice cream love fest. Our drink of choice was either Coca-Cola or iced tea, except for the most auspicious dinners On very special occasions - holidays, weddings, births - Mama Sena's table would include wine. This was the only alcohol I ever saw Mama Sena drink. Indeed it was her only vice. Except for smoking like a chimney and cussing like a sailor. But otherwise, her only vice. Thought we had our share of alcoholics in the family, drinking hard liquor always seemed to be an after-hours activity.
And when Mama Sena served wine, she always chose kosher wine. Mogen David and Manischewitz provided me with my first taste of alcohol. This, too, marked the beginning of my transformation into one of the Chosen People. To me, wine had to have that "double triangle thingy" on it in order to be truly legit. It didn't hurt to have a bunch of bearded guys dressed all in black. Far more important than vintage were these things.
Exactly why my grandmother adopted kosher wine as our celebratory drink of choice remains something of a mystery. Theories abound, from the sweetness that surely appealed to infrequent wine drinkers, to price, to the fact that kosher wine frequently has been used in communion services in African American churches.
As a member of the Women's Missionary Society in our local AME church, Mama Sena would have been responsible from time to time for obtaining wine for the sacrament. She may have developed a taste for it in the course of carrying out her duties. Drinking kosher wine in the home was just another example of how African Americans deftly navigate the sacred and the profane, never allowing one to destroy their appreciation for the other. The journey that kosher wine took from the communion table to Mama Sena's table was in some ways no different than the musical wanderings of Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and Sam Cooke from gospel to R&B and back again.
In fact, one of the oldest of the eighteen first cousins still refers to kosher wine as "praise wine" and keeps a bottle of Mogen David hidden away in her pantry, as if to prevent it from contaminating the high-toned good stuff she so proudly displays in her fancy under-the-counter wine fridge. For her, it's a comfortable memory of our childhood. Or perhaps a constant connection to her own Inner Jew.
Ultimately, it matters little why Mama Sena and other African American church women developed a taste for kosher wine. In addition to bringing families together, "praise wine" has produced a generation of black oenophiles. It has propelled me to a global adventure of food and drink of all kinds. I've had wine from Bordeaux, Otago, the Okanagan Valley, and most parts in between. Meanwhile, I've formed friendships that have outlasted any bottle. In addition to leading me to an appreciation for being a black Jew, praise wine has enriched my life in a profound way. In other words, it has been a mitzvah.
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