November 22, 2006
I’m dreaming of a Jewish Thanksgiving
"And after 11 months and 30 days, He rested, and Moshe told his people that they shall journey through airport security to gather with their individual tribes; that
they shall partake in the holy feast of turkey and anything starchy in the orange family; and rejoice in a brew of malt, hops, barley and college football; and say thanks to the Holy One for our families, our freedoms, the iPod and all the other blessings of the land...."
"And all of America listened and said, 'Yes, we shall be grateful and stuff ourselves until we can't move.'"
That's not from Genesis; it's from the warped imagination of a Pico-Robertson Jew trying to understand the American love affair with Thanksgiving, this holiest of days in the American calendar. Ever since I moved to this country 25 years ago, I've been in awe of how 250 million people stop everything during the fourth Thursday of November to gather around cranberry sauce, stuffing and bread pudding.
This year, however, being in the Orthodox hood, where they celebrate a Jewish version of Thanksgiving twice a week -- on Friday night and Shabbat lunch, without turkey and TV but with lots of prayers, blessings and songs, and at least as much food -- I've been experiencing something a little different: a respectful but slightly blasé attitude toward this big American holiday. Oh sure, all the schools are off and most people make plans for a Thanksgiving meal, but it's nowhere near the excitement and anticipation you see elsewhere throughout the country.
And I think I've figured out why: Orthodox Jews get excited only when God is around.
Interestingly, at the inception of Thanksgiving, God was very much around. Look at the biblical tone of the original Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1676: "The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present War with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgments he hath remembered mercy..." and so on, with the Holy One mentioned throughout.
How time changes things: 330 years later, the God that launched Thanksgiving in America has given way to the friendly idols of comfort food and "Twilight Zone" marathons, around the universal ideal of the family gathering. In a country that deeply respects religion, including the freedom to practice no religion, this gradual secularizing of Thanksgiving has enabled the holiday to reach into the homes of just about every American, regardless of race, culture or religion.
Still, for an observant Jew who recites prayers of gratitude first thing in the morning and throughout the day -- including a special blessing for America on Shabbat -- and who partakes in maybe 120 Thanksgiving-type holiday meals a year (Shabbats plus other holidays), it's hard, no offense, to get too worked up about another holiday meal -- even if this one has little to do with Judaism and everything to do with America.
But I think there's something more going on, and it has to do with rituals. Observant Jews have a hard time doing anything without a ritual, especially the act of eating. Just look at the Friday night Shabbat meal. First you light the Shabbat candles before sundown and make a blessing. After the evening prayers, you gather at the meal table where you sing a mystical song to welcome the angels. You then bless the women of valor, you bless the children, you bless the wine, you wash your hands with another blessing before you bless the bread, and some of us might even add a few songs and Torah stories.
And all of this before one molecule of eggplant salad has been ingested!
If you want more direct comparisons to Thanksgiving, look at the "Harvest Festival" of Sukkot and the "Freedom Festival" of Passover. Are there any holidays that have more rituals? The point is this: In Judaism, we can't just sit down and eat. A family holiday meal like the Passover seder is a holy experience, and we add meaning to all three -- the family, the holiday and the meal -- through the rituals that are meant for that occasion.
This love affair with rituals is not gratuitous. In fact, it's hard to imagine how our holidays could have survived for so long without their reassuring presence. It still amazes me how Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews didn't see much of each other since the destruction of the Temple some 2,000 years ago, and yet we still come to our Shabbat and seder tables and recite the exact same blessings!
For a people that love to argue and question everything, you must admit, that is a remarkable absence of editing.
Of course, you want to be careful before you edit anything that revolves around God, and our holy rituals and blessings certainly do revolve around God. It's not a coincidence that they have had such staying power. When God is integral to your holiday meal, it's hard for college football and Budweiser to hijack the holiday.
So here's an idea for Orthodox Jews, and for any Jew who loves America: make Thanksgiving more Jewish. Add some rituals that commemorate our deep gratitude to our adopted country. Get creative. Come up with special blessings that will add meaning to Thanksgiving meal. Do a mini Haggadah. Write a song to "Thank USA." Publish a "Book of Thanks" from famous American Jews. Get our best chefs to distribute Jewish Thanksgiving recipes (my mother can donate her famous Sephardic stuffing recipe). And don't be afraid to say "thank God" somewhere.
That would make it really Jewish.
Listen, we've given so much to this country already, they almost expect us to do something crazy like spiritually elevate their biggest day of the year.
If this thing takes off, by the time Thanksgiving rolls around next year, a lot more Americans might be asking: When do we eat?