Thanksgiving: The Quintessential Jewish-American Experience

read more But now I have learned that among some of our more Orthodox brethren, ( is there a feminine form for brethren? ) there is a real debate about even recognizing the holiday's existence. While most Yeshovot now close for Thanksgiving, I am told it is because the secular teachers would take off anyway. I have also learned that in the not- too-distant past, students who were absent on Thanksgiving were questioned to make sure that they had not spent it on any "goyishe mishagas," and were actually ill. Perhaps they needed a note from their doctors assuring that there were no traces of Turkey in their digestive systems. Not surprisingly, this lesser known "November dilemma" is rooted in Talmudic debate. By the medieval period, if not earlier, the rabbis were debating what we should do about gentile customs, including holidays. But even in Biblical Judaism, we were warned against imitating the ways of non-Jews. We are told in Leviticus, " You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, or the land of Canaan to which I am taking you." The next lines might give us pause, however, because they spell out, in great detail, whose nakedness we are not supposed to uncover (parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, grandchildren, grandparents, your sister-in-law, etc.) This section was a big hit in my 7th grade Hebrew school class. Eventually, it seems that rabbinic consensus only forbad idolatrous customs and not the "foolish" customs found in the Gentile community. Apparently foolish--but secular--customs are permissible, so long as they have a reasonable explanation (and are not immodest). So thankfully, Thanksgiving has a reasonable explanation and as far as I know, never required uncovering anybody's nakedness. While it is, of course, certain that the Pilgrims were thanking God that they hadn't all frozen to death, been killed by disease, bears or Indians, (only about 1/2 of the original settlers survived the first year,) there was never any evidence of any particular prayers, religious rituals or symbols involved. Thanking God for a good harvest and making it through the year, of course, wasn't something invented by the good people of Plymouth. Harvest holidays are common throughout the world, as is thanking a Supreme being for waking up alive. But the story of the Pilgrims and their Indian benefactors did seem to capture the attention of the American people, as it certainly was a "feel good" one. By the middle of the 19th century Thanksgiving had become the most American and in many ways, the most appealing, of American holidays. Abraham Lincoln knew its power as a unifying force when he declared it a national holiday in 1863. And we Jews, at least those of us who really do want to be part of the whole, happily embraced it. Number one, it is built around food, family and friends, the Jewish trinity. Secondly, it feels patriotic without requiring any display of chauvinism. Thirdly, we can get our college-age children to come home for a holiday that does not require their putting on a dress or tie to go to synagogue. And as much as I love our Passover seder, there is something liberating and refreshing about sharing a meal with family, without hearing about boils, cattle disease and the slaying of the first born. Barry Levinson's highly memorable Thanksgiving scene in "Avalon," his touching film about Jewish immigrants becoming Americanized, has even led to a catch phrase in my family, "you cut the toikey". I love Thanksgiving, I love the smells, the weather with its tinge of winter in the air, the Gemütlichkeit, but most of all, the sense of belonging. We know enough about Jewish history to understand that this was a feeling that had been mostly denied us in other lands. So, chag sameach. ESS GEZUNTE HEIT!