Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving – a great American invention. As
Americans from coast to coast sit down and dig in to their turkey and stuffing,
their cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, Israelis should contemplate the holiday’s
This is the all-American day, when blacks and whites,
Jews and non-Jews, immigrants and natives, act in concert, bonding as one
Thanksgiving’s magic lies in each individual’s memory, ritual and
For me, Thanksgiving is about schlepping into a cold, windy
Manhattan with my parents to see Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade – shivering from
the cold and with delight, while watching supersizedballoons of Superman and
Underdog, Popeye and Bullwinkle J. Moose waft down Broadway.
defrosting in the apartment of my Aunt Jennie and Uncle Lenny, clambering around
with my brothers as the grownups crowded around a table extending the length of
their Bronx apartment, from the dining room into the living room. It’s about
braving the Wednesday before Thanksgiving as a college student, sitting on the
highway from Boston to New York, now blocked by one massive traffic jam as
millions rush to make it for the command performance which is the Thanksgiving
It’s about the sweet smell of American success as we gather around
successively larger dining room tables in my uncle’s successively more
magnificent houses, sharing our accomplishments, thrilled that America is so
welcoming to us Jews.
MY THANKSGIVING is about mounds of my Aunt Lenore’s
chestnut stuffing vacuumed off the plate, cases of my Uncle Irv’s Beaujolais
Nouveau drained dry. It’s about the sticky sweetness of the melted marshmallows
atop my mother’s sweet potato casserole, the alluring smell of the turkey as my
father carved it so expertly.
And it’s about my late grandparents’
desperate delight in seeing their children and grandchildren gather year after
year, pleased we were all “tugetha” – Newyawk speak for together – but fearing
that once they died these reunions would stop – which they did.
charm lies in these intimacies, the grandeur comes from the
We were all doing it at once as Americans.
turkeys might be kosher, and our tables might lack a big ham, but despite our
ethnic idiosyncrasies, our religious peculiarities, we never felt so American as
when we gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing in synch with our neighbors
on Thanksgiving Day.
Christmas is too Christian. The Fourth of July
substitutes finger-menacing fireworks for the finger-lickin’
Thanksgiving has a purity, a universality, a magnanimity, a
ubiquity epitomizing America at its best. The overflowing Thanksgiving
cornucopia embodies America’s abundant blessings of openness, acceptance,
fluidity, civility and stability in the world’s shining example of a society
delivering liberty and prosperity.
Other countries have festivals to give
thanks, but American Thanksgiving stands out in its ecumenicism, its welcoming
embrace, whether or not you begin it by saying grace.
That was Abraham
Lincoln’s idea when he signed the first proclamation creating a uniform
Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November, 1863. The United States was
fighting a bloody Civil War.
Different states had celebrated at different
times for decades. Lincoln wanted to devote one day to toasting the good despite
all the bad, celebrated “as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American
THANKSGIVING’S CHARMS evoke the many magical, communal moments
punctuating Israel’s calendar. There is a national magic and grandeur to Rosh
Hashana’s mass joy and massive heartburn, Yom Kippur’s stillness and piousness,
Hanukka’s lights and lightheartedness, Purim’s costumes and chaos, Passover’s
cleaning and cuisine, Holocaust Remembrance Day’s sorrow and solemnity,
Remembrance Day’s sadness and supportiveness, Independence Day’s bliss and
barbecues. But none of these fabulous festivals which enrich Israeli life
involve all Israelis. Twenty percent of the population, the Arab 20%, takes the
days off but few Israeli-Arabs partake in these national
The absence of 20% of the population does not invalidate
these national festivals.
The majority culture in a democracy can mount
mass celebrations enacting majority rituals and expressing majority ideals. But
it would be great if the Arab sector embraced Yom Ha’atzmaut
Independence Day, or another holy day, perhaps making Yitzhak Rabin’s memorial
day a day for uniting all Israelis.
American Thanksgiving should inspire
Israelis to nurture more national rallying points, more communal bonding moments
that remind Israel’s Arabs and Jews of their common values and intertwined fates
as Israeli citizens. All Israelis should have a broader appreciation of Israeli
Arab celebrities such as singer Mira ‘Awad, soccer star Walid Badir whose
83rd-minute goal gave Israel tie against France in 2006, Salim Joubran the
Supreme Court justice who judged Moshe Katsav.
We would do well to
appreciate the efforts of comedian and writer Sayed Kashua of the sitcom Avoda
, of former general Yusef Mishlab, of Hebrew poet and successful diplomat,
The education ministry should focus more on what Americans
call “civics,” creating a common language and common values to unite the four
school systems – an absurd number for a small country – so that young Arabs,
religious Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular Jews can share more, not less.
Arabs should volunteer for national service to demonstrate their participation
in the social compact. And politicians should devote more resources to
eliminating discrimination, nurturing civility, facilitating unity and
cultivating a common discourse.
This kind of bonding, this search for new
social glues that transcend the familiar divides, will not be easy. Communal
moments and touchstones are not easily mass produced or conjured. But history
teaches that change sometimes occurs for the better. When Abraham Lincoln
started the first national Thanksgiving, Americans were slaughtering one another
en masse. But he believed in his nation. This notion of seeking one covenant of,
by and for the people should inspire and bond modern Israelis, uniting Arabs and
Jews.The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a
Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author
of Why I Am A
Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and
the Challenges of Today and The History of
American Presidential Elections.