Why Jews Love Thanksgiving

This is the fourth week of the month. For Reflections Off the Bimah, the fourth week features thought leaders from throughout the Jewish world and beyond. These special posts give you the opportunity to consider important opinions you may not readily encounter. I share this article by Ruth Kaplan published last year in “Jewish Boston.”  May you have a grateful Thanksgiving!

 

November 26, 2018

By Ruth Kaplan

The most obvious reason? It’s the great equalizer—we are all invited to the party!

Thanksgiving seems to be the most popular American holiday for Jews. The most obvious reason? It’s the great equalizer—we are all invited to the party! Ironically, it has come to be regarded as the kickoff to the “holiday season,” which, of course, refers to the all-pervasive Christmas, with a touch of Hanukkah on the side.

Now, of course, there are many Jewish people who are not the least bit bothered by the Christmas season and don’t feel at all excluded. I just don’t happen to be among them. For me, Christmas makes me feel like “the other.” Despite guarantees of religious freedom, the reality is that, culturally, the United States is a majority Christian country, and during the Christmas season, I feel like I’m “not invited to the party,” even though I’m generally invited to and attend seasonal parties. But a part of me always sees myself from the outside looking in: I don’t have a tree, I don’t buy poinsettias or a wreath and I quickly tire of Christmas music on elevators. Bah, humbug!

But back to the joys of Thanksgiving for American Jews. Though the holiday has a touch of religious content, it is of the universal variety and has generally come to be regarded as a secular observance. For observant Jews in particular, it is a day where there are no travel restrictions or rules about turning lights or ovens on or off. Turkey, albeit of the kosher variety, can be enjoyed just as it is with their non-Jewish neighbors. (Contrast this to Christmas parties, where ham is de rigueur and undesirable, even to most of the non-observant.)

The traditional Thanksgiving meal is likewise an attractive feature that resonates with Jews since Jewish people love to eat and are very comfortable with the concept of tradition, family, storytelling and giving thanks. Eating the same basic holiday foods every year resembles the food-based customs of Passover, Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah and even Shavuot. The story of the first sit-down between the pilgrim settlers and Native Americans is easily relatable to Jewish people and reflects the value of welcoming the stranger. (Some even theorize that this festive harvest holiday was based originally on Sukkot.) Of course, this view of history has been challenged as of late by a very different narrative experienced by Native Americans. Nonetheless, the values of hospitality and expressions of gratitude embedded in the original story still ring true.

Thanksgiving reminds us, as Americans, that we are all a nation of immigrants—our pilgrim forbearers arrived at our Massachusetts shore seeking religious freedom. Most Jewish people can relate to their own family histories, which involve stories of immigration from a not-so-distant past.

The United States is, after all, a grand experiment in diversity, from which Jews have benefitted more than in any other society in history. It is clearly within the interest of the Jewish community to guard these values of inclusivity and mutual respect and push back against the wave of exclusion and intolerance of “the other” that we have sadly seen rearing its ugly head.

When I was a child, my dear uncle ended our Thanksgiving meal by leading the whole family in the singing of “God Bless America.” Jews love Thanksgiving because it is the holiday that marries American and Jewish values by emphasizing what unites us all. On Thanksgiving, a national holiday created by President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the most divisive civil war, Americans of all stripes take time out to express gratitude for our good fortune to share in America’s bounty and to recommit to fulfilling America’s promise of equality of opportunity for all. What could be more Jewish than aspiring toward tikkun olam for our beloved country?

Happy belated Thanksgiving!

This post has been contributed by a third party. The opinions, facts and any media content are presented solely by the author, and JewishBoston assumes no responsibility for them.

Posted by Rabbi Greg Harris

2 comments

This really hits the nail on the head! Christmas made me feel like “the other” during childhood but I LOVED Thanksgiving as it was my holiday too. I was trying to explain this to some Hindu friends the other day! Now we have many non-Christians in the US so we have to make reservations at movie theaters and Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day!

And there are are those Jews who refuse to see the upside of this holiday only because it is Christian in origin. I believe Jews who don’t celebrate or refuse to celebrate this holiday are missing out. True, they have their own Thanksgivings [Sukkot) but they are traditionally non-inclusive. And yet the Sukkah decorations seem recently drawn directly from Christian decorations – paper chains, lights, tinsel etc. There’s too much unhappiness in this world. If there’s something to celebrate, do it and enjoy. No need for guilt over this.

Leave a Reply to anad Cancel reply