Why is Thanksgiving so popular with American Jews?

What if the motif of Thanksgiving was "oink oink" and not "gobble gobble?"

 THE KOSHER bird. (photo credit: Ruocaled/Flickr)
THE KOSHER bird.
(photo credit: Ruocaled/Flickr)

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, more years ago than I care to admit, I was making some purchases in one of Brooklyn’s major kosher supermarkets. A woman in a bit of a frenzy ran in and made a beeline to the meat and poultry section, where she asked the guy behind the counter if any turkeys were still available for sale. Shaking his head, he apologized and told the customer that not a single turkey was left. 

I was sure the woman would run out of the store and looked elsewhere, but instead she shrugged and asked the butcher for the largest chicken he had. “My kids,” she said,” won’t know the difference anyway.”

Not a November goes by that I don’t recall that incident and muse over how enthusiastically the American Jewish community – even those in “yeshivisha” conclaves – embraced the holiday of Thanksgiving. I’ve always found that strange, since the root of the holiday lies in the attempt of English colonists to escape Catholic domination, to freely practice a new kind of Christianity. 

Things, of course, have changed in the course of 400 years. The New Testament spirituality that the Mayflower journeyers brought with them to North America has become increasingly secularized, and Jews, seeing no conflict with their own religion, have become as comfortable as gentiles in enjoying the festivities of the late-autumn celebration. 

More than a few tradition-minded families, no doubt, still see the day as a time to bow their heads and express appreciation – in contemporary terms – for a successful harvest and for having survived another year. Over the last century or so, this sense of gratitude has, unfortunately, become increasingly diluted. As the bounty of the land and reasonably good health became more and more taken for granted, the emphasis of the holiday changed to what you might call the three F’s – Family, Football, Feasting. What, then, is the draw for Jews?

TOM THE Turkey floats by Macy’s during New York City’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, spreading holiday cheer. (credit: AARON OF NEPA/FLICKR)TOM THE Turkey floats by Macy’s during New York City’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, spreading holiday cheer. (credit: AARON OF NEPA/FLICKR)

It certainly couldn’t be family. Jews have their own annual family get together, the Passover Seder, which predated the excursion to Plymouth Rock by a few years. Even Jews no more than marginally affiliated with their heritage gather around the table in early, spring as two or three generations of a family share matzah and wine. So, while those participating in the Seder may not have ventured to Bubbe’s over the river and through the woods, the sentimentality of a family gathering is not foreign to Jewish culture or practice. It is not, therefore, the boisterous coming together of relatives that Jews find attractive about Thanksgiving.

Football? Well, we certainly enjoy the game and spend some time watching it on Sunday afternoons or Monday evenings, but Jewish calendars are not marked in anticipation of the two or three NFL games that are traditionally played on Thanksgiving. If, for example, the NFL Players Association would demand that they want Thanksgiving as a day off for all players and that there no longer be games scheduled on Thanksgiving, Jewish fans would not, I suspect, be overly upset. We would find other ways to occupy our attention in between courses and not fret over incomplete passes or devastating penalties.

Which, finally, brings us to feasting – something Jews know a thing or two about. As the old joke goes – They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat! – we don’t need much of an excuse to have a festive meal. And Thanksgiving fits the bill perfectly. There are no Shabbat or holiday restrictions, and the food that is prepared is in many ways different than what is traditionally eaten at Jewish meals.

FORTUNATE indeed is that the centerpiece of the meal – the majestic turkey – is a kosher bird that is more than welcome at a Jewish table. It is something that has been overlooked for centuries. It was pure luck that enables us to participate in Thanksgiving festivities in the same way as our non-Jewish neighbors.

What if the Puritans aimed elsewhere in 1621, exactly 400 years ago, when they went out hunting for the first Thanksgiving meal, and instead of bagging a wild fowl, they brought to the table something really foul, a wild boar? This is not an unlikely scenario, by any means. Then Massachusetts woodlands in the 17th century were teeming with wild game, including various species of swine. 

Imagine what would have ensued if, instead of a drumstick, the savory favorite of the Thanksgiving feast was a snout? More than that: there would be a balloon depiction of Porky Pig soaring in the sky during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Arnold the Pig from the old television show Green Acres would receive the symbolic presidential pardon, and The Three Little Piggies would be the favored children’s story told around the table.

As for the Jews, insofar as there is no workaround for roast pig, Thanksgiving would have become nothing more than an ordinary day, much like Memorial Day or Presidents’ Day. Families would spend a pleasant day off, either puttering around the house or going out for Chinese food. Lawns would be tended to, children would play basketball or ride their bikes, minor home repairs would be taken care of. The fun and excitement of the Thanksgiving celebrations and festivities would have gone ignored. And all because a path in the woods was chosen through which hunters encountered unkosher game rather than defenseless turkeys.

But, of course, the Puritans, unintentionally of course, did in fact feast on a kosher species of fowl (which may actually have been a goose or duck) and the rest, as they say, is history. For one day a year Jewish and non-Jewish celebrations are perfectly aligned. 

Not that everything is perfectly clear about this alignment. My grandmother, one year, was explaining to some of her friends about the upcoming Thanksgiving gathering in her apartment. “There is nothing goyish about Thanksgiving,” she declared forcefully. She then turned to my mother and hesitantly asked, “Is there?”

Not to go unnoted is that at the finishing line of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a Santa Klaus float, a poignant reminder that the day is also the kickoff point for what has become known as the December Dilemma, the challenge that Jewish parents face in keeping their children focused on Hanukkah and not on Christmas. 

Oddly, there were two occasions – 1888 and 2013 – that Thanksgiving coincided not with Christmas but with Hanukkah. The anticipation was palpable; cranberry sauce with latkes, doughnuts with pumpkin pie, dreidel competition instead of touch football. Rabbis went out of their way to bring a sense of holiness to the coincidence of the two days. Both, they said, were opportunities to express humility and thanks to the Creator. 

But the two days are not quite the same. Thanksgiving involves the giving of thanks for the cooperation of nature by providing a bountiful harvest. Hanukkah, on the other hand, expresses our gratitude that oil burned seven days longer than it should have, and that a small army managed to overcome a mighty one. In other words, we are giving thanks for the suspension of nature.

No matter, really. According to the experts, the next time the two days will again be aligned is either 76695 or 79811. American Jews, it seems, will no longer have the opportunity to prepare menus that cater to both holidays. Which is fine. A six to eight kilo turkey, chestnut dressing and cornbread take enough time to prepare. Latkes and sufganiyot can wait another week or so.