Thanksgiving: A Jewish American holiday

Despite the recent rise of antisemitism in American cities, the Jews of America have earned a seat at the table as Jews and as Americans.

November 22, 2016 20:30
4 minute read.
Thanksgiving turkey.

WHAT ARE the Yiddish words for Turkey, football and obscure relatives you rarely get to see?. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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What is the holiday most celebrated by American Jews? Thanksgiving. That’s no joke, it’s a fact. And recognizing this little known fact allows for a better understanding of the real state of American Jewry.

Jews celebrating Thanksgiving is a phenomenon that has been around for a very long time. Few American Jews celebrate Shavuot and or, for that matter, the last days of Succot, Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah. But American Jews do celebrate Thanksgiving. One big reason is that Thanksgiving is viewed as a secular American holiday with none of the overtones of Christianity or paganism. It is purely family based – a big turkey meal with all the fixings, football games and, of course, a parade.

For decades Jews ached to belong in America. And celebrating Thanksgiving, like celebrating July 4, was a perfect way of showing the neighbors just how American Jews can be while, at the same time, teaching the family how special America has been to the Jews.

American rabbis, by and large, were in agreement that eating turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie on the second to last Thursday in November was perfectly acceptable. The exception was Rav Yitzhak Hutner whose rabbinic response is published in Pachad Yitzhak. Hutner wrote that Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday and Jews should not celebrate it in any way because the original celebrants invoked Christian themes in the celebration. Other American rabbinic authorities, including both Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, ruled that Thanksgiving was not a religious holiday but an authentic American holiday.

While it is true that the first few Thanksgiving celebrations in Plymouth, Massachusetts in the 1620s took place in July, these Thanksgivings were meals of plenty – celebrating a successful harvest. And rather than a celebration of Christian values, they were most certainly modeled on the concept of the biblical Jewish pilgrimage harvest festivals of Passover, Succot and Shavuot.

Years later the celebration took a slightly different twist when George Washington signed a presidential proclamation “recommending” Thanksgiving and establishing the date as November 26, 1789. In his proclamation America’ first president wrote:

“I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation.”

In 1863 president Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation making Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November, which made it either the fourth or fifth Thursday of the month.

Slowly, Thanksgiving lost any semblance of a religious connection. To the consternation and frustration of many Americans, Thanksgiving became so truly an American holiday that, as much as it is about food and family it is about business, marketing, sales and the economy.

In 1934 president Theodore Roosevelt signed an order changing the date and moving it one week earlier in November. Now Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the second to last Thursday of November no matter how many Thursdays there were that year. Roosevelt was responding to mercantile lobbyists who wanted to expand the Christmas shopping season, which officially begins on Thanksgiving. And that’s why the final float in the Macy’s Day Parade is Santa, smiling and waving as he officially welcomes the upcoming holiday and its accompanying shopping frenzy.

American Jews, like all immigrant groups in America, strive to balance their need to assimilate and their desire to retain the traditions of their families and their past. While many Jews do celebrate Thanksgiving just like they celebrate Christmas, many celebrate Thanksgiving in a uniquely Jewish American way.

It is that unique blend that has been so successful over the years not only on Thanksgiving but in all aspects of life as Americans. It is that weave of Jewish identity and American commitment that moves Jews to turn out and go to the polls in such high numbers and to contribute such large sums to election campaigns.

Despite the recent rise of antisemitism in American cities, the Jews of America have earned a seat at the table as Jews and as Americans. That is a distinction worth recognizing. That is an accomplishment for which we should be thankful. And so, we eat turkey, watch football and then, in our own Jewish way, give thanks for our ability to belong in a way our forefathers longed for but never achieved.

The author is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.

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