Organizers of the Thanksgivukkah Festival, a local celebration of the once-in-a-lifetime convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, figured the Pico Union Project in central Los Angeles would be the ideal place to party.
The building, much like the holiday, is a bit of a mash-up. Once home to one of the oldest synagogues in the city, it later became a Welsh Presbyterian church; its stained glass windows are inlaid with Stars of David as well as with names of Christian congregants.
Representing communities as diverse as the building’s history, 500 people — Jews and non-Jews — turned out on Nov. 29 to eat, dance, play and avoid the consumer chaos known as Black Friday. “Light, Liberty and Latkes” was the motto of the day.
“What better way to celebrate religious freedom, the freedom that the Maccabees fought for from the Greeks, the freedom that our American ancestors fought for?” said Craig Taubman, musician and producer of Sinai Temple’s “Friday Night Live” program.
Taubman bought the historic brick building on Valencia Street in December 2012 to create a multifaith community arts center. Four different faith groups currently share the sanctuary, which is also used to hold performances and community events, he said.
The idea for the festival was hatched by Deborah Gitell, who coined and copyrighted the term “Thanksgivukkah” with her sister-in-law Dana. Based on popular online response and sales from Thansgivukkah-themed gifts, the Gitells knew there was plenty of excitement surrounding this unusual date. (The first day of Chanukah and Thanksgiving won’t coincide again for 77,000 years.) Ralph Resnick, head of rituals at Sinai Temple, introduced Deborah Gitell to Taubman, who agreed to host the festival.
Jeffrey Braer, a film producer from Culver City, was one of many who braved the rain to attend. He stood outside between food trucks and carnival games with his wife, Rebecca, a teacher, and children Emily, 5 and Jasmine, 3 months.
“It’s a really wonderful experience, kind of a blending of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, of new traditions and old traditions,” Braer said. At home, the family celebrated differently this year and made sweet potato latkes and pecan pie rugelach to commemorate Thanksgivukkah.
At the festival, food was a major point of celebration. Aside from traditional Jewish dishes from Canter’s Truck and The Kosher Palate, the Dog Haus offered what it called the Thanksgivukkah Dog — a smoked turkey sausage, cooked with cranberries and sweet potatoes, and topped with latke-like Tater Tots in a bun. Bibi’s Bakery featured pumpkin-filled doughnuts, a festive take on traditional Sephardic holiday treats. Korean barbecue and Mexican food were available as well.
Children and adults enjoyed eclectic performances throughout the day, including Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz, a mariachi group and gospel music. Jaclyn Beck, who sang some liturgy music with IKAR’s Hazzan Hillel Tigay, said she felt the festival represented a “Jewish renaissance” in the Pico-Union area, a community that hasn’t had a prominent Jewish presence since the 1920s.
Next to a petting zoo and pony ride, children spray-painted designs on a pew under the supervision of Pico-Union graffiti artist/activist Mario Cruz, also known as Fenix Lax, 23. He was one of the many neighborhood residents and non-Jews at the Thanksgivukkah Festival.
“I think it’s so dope that we can have so much culture here, so many people from different backgrounds. … I wanted to do it here because this is my community,” he said.
Although Thanksgivukkah won’t come again for eons, Deborah Gitell believes the sentiment of the combined holiday can live on.
“This time of year, when everyone is in a Black Friday shopping frenzy, maybe there is a moment that we can stop and really think about being grateful for the freedom that we have in this country, and the rededication of community that Chanukah is certainly about.”