Story and Photos by Zamariah Strozier Data News Weekly Contributor
It’s the time of year when families and communities come together. In the spirit of the holiday season, local experts led college students in combining the traditions of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Christmas at the Andre Cailloux Center for Performing Arts and Cultural Justice on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.
Students from Xavier, Tulane, Dillard and Loyola Universities broke bread together around a spread of traditional foods and décor and designed handmade unity gifts to mark traditions of importance to African Americans and Jewish people.
“I think one of the ways we can give, celebrate Kwanza or even acknowledge it, is one, through education,” said Shaddai Livingston, the Events Manager for the Andre Cailloux Center who is a member of the New Orleans Kwanzaa Coalition and the Founder and Director of the New Orleans Juneteenth Festival.
Livingston, a graduate of Southern University at New Orleans, joined with her fellow New Orleans native, Nancy Pesses, a local baker and Founder of Challah Creations by Nancy, to showcase how both traditions are designed to showcase remembrance and resilience of both African American and Jewish communities.
“The similarities of what we value like unity is really important for what this holiday is about not just in commemoration, but also just for bringing our family together, and then the collective importance of working together,” said Pesses, a Louisiana State University graduate, who is a small animal relief veterinarian in Southeast Louisiana. “We’re always stronger in numbers is kind of the overarching theme for every holiday gathering that I’ve had in my family and kind of within the Jewish community. And so, why, why I feel like it is essential to work together, not just in the Jewish community, but outside of the Jewish community with each other. Because I feel like we are stronger together,” Pesses added.
Both Livingston and Pesses explained to students the role of different foods in each celebration. Pesses shared that Jewish families eat fried and sweet foods from potato latkes to jelly donuts – sufganiyot, to remember the miracle that lit the menorah for 8 days, instead of 1. Like Kwanzaa, Jewish people acknowledge their liberation from oppression and the freedom to worship when the tradition first began over 2,000 years ago. Livingston added that the seven Kwanzaa candles are symbolic of the seven values of Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics, Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
There are three red candles representing struggle, three are green and represent land and hope, and one is black to represent people of African descent. Livingston shared that since Kwanza is not a religious celebration but a cultural one, people of African descent whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish all celebrate Kwanzaa between Dec. 26th and Jan. 1st each year. Hanukkah is observed earlier from Dec. 7th through Dec. 15th, with the Christmas holiday falling in between both festivities. “It is a good time to be amongst family and so it was always a family-centered holiday spread out amongst eight days,” Livingston said. “Really, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandma, if I didn’t see them all on the first night or the last night, I would see them on nights in between,” she added.
The holiday celebration was hosted by the Still We R.O.S.E Initiative, an effort launched by students in Xavier’s Exponential Honors Program to foster better understanding among Black and Jewish communities. The event was supported through a micro-grant by Shine-A-Light to combat rising Anti-Semitism.
“I love Hanukkah, and it was so nice to learn about Kwanzaa,” said Cameron Kowitt, a service engagement intern with Tulane Hillel. “I really didn’t know a lot about it, and I really appreciated broadening my horizon. Thank you,” Kowitt said.