It’s taken American Jews a good century to fully absorb the miraculous idea that this country is unlike any other that Jews have experienced. After 2,000 years of feeling insecure no matter where we pitched our tents, the people of Moses finally found safe harbor in the land of Lincoln — the land of freedom, human rights and justice for all.
So maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised to see the Jewish community go head over heels for anything that makes us look and feel American. It’s our Jewish way of saying thank you.
Naturally, when we learned this year that Thanksgiving and Chanukah would fall on the same day — something that’s never happened before — our gratitude went into overdrive and … drumroll … Thanksgivukkah was born!
It’s eerie that this rare Jewish-American holiday meld would coincide with the just-released Pew study of American Jewry, which revealed, among other things, that Jewish identity is melting right into America’s loving embrace.
Maybe it’s a sign of how intimate that embrace has become that hardly anyone in the Jewish community has uttered a breadcrumb of complaint about the “intermarriage” of these two holidays.
How dare we complain? How dare we show ingratitude on the very day of gratitude?
After all, it would be impolite to do what comedian Stephen Colbert did from his side, when he complained that “Chanukah is screwing up my Thanksgiving.”
For most American Jews, it’s the opposite: Thanksgiving is upgrading our Chanukah. It’s a shidduch made in heaven.
That certainly feels like the polite American response, but is it the proper Jewish one? I don’t think so.
For one thing, the meshing of the holidays makes it harder to appreciate differences. The holiday of Thanksgiving is one of my favorites, not least because it brings families together and puts even grouchy people in a good mood. Who can beat that?
But Thanksgiving — however beautiful, warm and happy it is — is missing something.
As Rabbi Benjamin Blech notes on Aish.com, there are two instances in the Bible where Jews are commanded to make a blessing of gratitude: after a material experience (eating a meal), and before a spiritual one (learning Torah).
“In biblical terms,” Blech writes, “Thanksgiving is a sequel to the biblically mandated Birkat Ha-mazon, the Grace after Meals in which we express gratitude to the One Above ‘who feeds the world in his goodness with grace, with kindness and with mercy.’ ”
Thanksgiving, however, does not address another kind of gratitude we owe God: “It is the blessing for the spiritual part of our lives … a blessing that alerts us to the hunger of our souls and our yearning to be nourished by the sacred.”
That’s where Chanukah comes in.
As Blech explains, the real meaning of Chanukah is spiritual: “Antiochus was not bothered by the survival of Jews,” he writes. “What he wanted at all costs to prevent was the survival of Judaism. His decrees were against the observance of Torah.”
In other words, the threat “was not to our bodies, but our souls. The danger was not death but disappearance by way of assimilation.”
How appropriate, then, that Chanukah’s main ritual should be based around oil, the one liquid that never “assimilates.” This oil speaks to the singularity of Jewish identity and the unique importance Judaism places on ritual.
It is ritual that leads us, somewhat ironically, to the spiritual.
The Friday night Shabbat meal, for example, would feel empty and generic without our time-honored rituals such as lighting the candles, welcoming the angels, blessing the woman of valor, blessing the children, blessing the wine, washing our hands and then blessing the bread, singing Shabbat songs and reciting the long prayer of thanks after the meal.
This ideal Shabbat meal, in fact, probably comes closest to being “Thanksgivukkah”— a meal that marries the spirituality of Chanukah with the abundance and gratitude of Thanksgiving; a meal that feeds body and soul.
In the Jewish tradition, rituals elevate and add reverence to physical acts and deepen the very expression of gratitude.
As my friend Rabbi David Wolpe told me, maybe the real issue here is that “Thanksgiving is not Jewish enough.” Well, it’s an intriguing thought that Jewish notions such as rituals might enhance the Thanksgiving experience — and why not? It wouldn’t be the first time Jews gave something back to America as an expression of our gratitude.
In any event, as the Chanukah lights glow this year on the great American day of gratitude, Jews will have plenty to be thankful for. Just as our ancestors were grateful for the miracle of the Chanukah oil that lasted eight days, we can be grateful for the miracle of the Jewish oil that has lasted 5,774 years.
That oil is a metaphor for the duality that challenges American Jewry: How do we engage with an embracing world while staying true to who we are? How do we shine the unique light of Judaism without making it mushy and generic?
Let’s be grateful that we live in a country that allows us to do all that.
Happy Thanksgiving … and Happy Chanukah.