Every Sunday, The New York Times Magazine offers its “Meh List” of things that are neither bad nor good – simply “meh.”
If I were to create a Jewish “Meh List,” Thanksgivukkah would be first in line to go on it.
Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I have anything against this new-found and never-again-to-be-repeated-in-our-lifetime merging of two great holidays. It’s just that I’m burnt out from the incessant recipe suggestions and design plans for menorahs made out of turkeys and/or turkey basters. It's all just a little cloying.
Thanksgivukkah is a typical modern American Jewish invention. It’s part of what historian Jonathan Sarna has called “the cult of synthesis” – the idea that Judaism walks hand in hand with Americanism. The late Charles Liebman put it this way: “There is nothing incompatible between being a good Jew and a good American, or between Jewish and American standards of behavior. In fact, for a Jew, the better an American one is, the better Jew one is.”
So, is Thanksgivukkah good or bad for the Jews – or for America?
It’s fine. It’s not as if we were talking about the merging of two holidays from different religions. We are not talking about Christmasukkah, or Ash Purim, or Eastover, or Rosh Ha-ramadan. There is no harm in combining a minor Jewish religious holiday with a major American secular observance.
Especially because, in a very subtle and interesting way, the two holidays actually have their roots in the same idea: that religious people can refuse to uncritically blend into a majority culture.
Start with the Maccabees. Though we often connect the legendary miracle of the cruise of oil that lasted for eight nights, there are two “better” miracles.
The first was that a small guerilla army could defeat the most powerful army in the world. The Maccabees actually invented guerilla warfare. This feat won Judah Maccabee a place in a mural at West Point, where he is commemorated as one of history’s greatest military strategists.
And the second miracle was that this military victory led to cultural survival. To this day, the elegant Hebrew term for assimilation is l’hityaven – to become Greek. The Maccabees fought against those who wanted to adopt Greek ways – often, with less-than-pretty results. (The word macabre has its origins in the bloody military escapades of the Maccabees). Their willingness to fight for their faith was an inspiration to Christianity – long before Jews caught on to that message. The medieval church viewed the Maccabees as the paradigms of knighthood and chivalry.
Had the Maccabees lost, Judaism would have disappeared – and Christianity never would have been born.
Come to think of it -- maybe Hanukkah really is the most important holiday in Western civilization.
What about the Pilgrims? The story is so woven into the mythology of American history that it is all too easy to forget its most powerful truths. The Pilgrims were religious dissidents who left England because they utterly despaired of the possibility of reforming the Church of England. Moreover, they founded their own congregations (hence, the Congregational Church) based on their own independent readings of the Bible (how Jewish!).
The story gets scary and violent. The Pilgrims were horribly persecuted. In 1607, they decided to leave England for Holland. The crew members of the ship they had hired turned out to be unscrupulous, robbing them mercilessly. In 1609, they finally succeeded in moving to Leiden, where the welcoming atmosphere and cultural pluralism (yes, even for the 1600s) allowed them to settle – as it had allowed Sephardic Jews to settle as well. And if you are looking for more parallels to the Jews, the Pilgrims worked in the cloth industry.
So why did the Pilgrims move to America? The traditional, mythical story is that they were angry that their children were starting to speak Dutch. (As we Jews have also figured out that the loss of a language is dangerous to continuity). The Pilgrims were disenchanted with the licentious attitudes and mores that they encountered in Holland. And so, they left Holland, arriving at what would become known as Cape Cod on November 21, 1620.
America was founded by religious dissenters. They were not only dissenting from a majority religion; they were also dissenting from a culture that embodied values that they could not accept.
That is the lesson of Hanukkah as well. When we consider that Hanukkah is the story of rebellion against the overreaching nature of Hellenistic culture, we must also remember that the Jews were the only people in the ancient world to rebel against the mores of the Greeks. We were the only ones who said “no.”
And perhaps for that, and for that spirit, we should truly be saying thanks.