Food & Resistance
Editor Talia Lavin, in the final stretch of delivering a manuscript for her upcoming book Culture Warlords, turns to cooking to counter hate.
Around the time I started writing a book about Nazis in earnest, making it the sole focus of my attentions, I started cooking again. For a long, difficult time, I had been in the grips of a depression, all through spring, summer, early autumn. I wanted to shrink inside the mollusk shell of my body, surrounded by air, and hollow bone. I wanted to be sealed off. Every word felt painfully extracted out of me: Rows of bad teeth grinned at me from the page. The lurid bad grin of my own words made me want to sleep all day. I made my world so small, a few blocks in diameter. I feared to eat; my soft throat seemed so vulnerable, swollen with anxiety. I had to trick myself into eating. I had to be intoxicated, or eat soft, very swallowable things. When I did eat I ate too much and nothing I’d made.
Writing about hate changes you. Living in a world where organized hate is aware of you changes you, too. Suddenly, I had friends – comrades in arms, who I talked to every day, who I loved – who were being put on anonymous hit lists. I had to think about self-defense plans, and paid for a service that erased my family’s addresses from the Internet. Before I even began writing the book, a federal agency had condemned me for exploring a potential link between one of their officers and white nationalism, and I’d been the subject of neo-Nazi propaganda. As I dove in further, I could feel the borders of my life and the hate I studied become porous. I went to sleep thinking about neo-Nazis – sometimes in a grim Arya Stark-ish enemies list, sometimes thinking about how to defeat them, sometimes trying to draw connections in my mind, or ideological delineations. I woke up thinking about how to synthesize it all for readers who had no idea about this world. During the day I drifted from café to café reading hate speech, hunched over my computer as I checked my rounds of neo-Nazi websites and chats. I sang less and drank more. I could feel myself sagging into myself, and all the world’s colors were pale as unsteeped tea.
Every day I was imbibing hatred: hatred of my people. Nearly everyone I loved was a Jew, my parents, my sisters, their children, the children I might have someday. I read about the people who hated kikes, and I talked to them. Although I opposed it, I internalized the depth of their hate and its vitriol: It changed the way I saw myself when I looked in the mirror. Suddenly I was the Jewess they derided: heavy, stooped, wretched, big of hair and nose. The things I loved about myself felt grotesque. It warped my mouth into bitterness. I wanted no part of my own body and all its works. I wanted no part of myself.
The way I love is to cook for those I love, and the best weapon against hate, they say, is love. Not the false love of airy social proclamations, or the acquisitive love of new desire, but a fierce, abiding love. If I couldn’t summon that for myself I could summon it for others, fierce love served in hot dishes. And after all those months of uncharacteristic quietude, of powerful self-loathing, I wanted to cook like a Jew.
From the Medieval era onward, antisemitic texts have warned that you can distinguish the Jew by his smell of garlic. According to the sociologist Celia S. Heller, Gentiles in prewar Poland derisively referred to Jews as “onion-eaters, herring eaters, and as garlic-smelling.” Onions and garlic, minced, tumbling into a sizzling pan of olive oil or butter or schmaltz, filling a kitchen with aromatic steam. I made Jewish food, too – cholent, kishke, a doughy umami mix of buckwheat groats and noodles, chicken soup. Food to live on, that hangs warm and heavy in the belly. A dash of coarse salt, a sprinkle of pepper, a few piney scraps of fresh rosemary, steaming in hot fat. A corresponding sizzle in the blood, an awakening.
Living in the bowels of hate it is easy to forget life. You cant toward the dark, into the private darkness in yourself that wants to vanquish hate with its own tools. You can feel lifted off the earth by fear, kept high where the air is thin and bitterly cold. It’s heady there in the stratosphere, just you and the data you’re gathering on the people who hate you the most. All that is good feels cut off from you. Hundreds of feet below you where the green things live and bodies sigh warmly against one another.
It’s just then that it may be salutary to cease to try to perform this work alone. Whatever task you have before you – be it writing a book or breaking up a fascist march before it begins, starting a letter-writing campaign to a police chief employing a Proud Boy – is just a part of a bigger work that began before you and will not end with your passing. In The Chapters of Our Fathers, a book of the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon says: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” This is how I have begun to feel about my task: dismantling the rise of fascism is best not left to lone vigilantes, nor to the punitive mechanisms of the state, but to systems and people working together to stamp out hate wherever it arises. In the meantime the night is long and cold enough. Cook like a Jew: paprika, dill, onions, garlic, warm broth and company. The herring is optional but love is not optional. It is what we must marshal to break the back of the beast. To do so we must break bread together first: a prickle of salt, a pat of melting butter, a bite, a kiss, a homily in the mouth about what’s worth fighting for.
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