Middle Israel: Israeli thoughts on Thanksgiving

Israelis thank America because never and nowhere throughout our forbears’ wanderings have the Jews, their heritage, and their identity been welcomed with such sincerity and warmth.

Some American-Israelis hold on to their Thanksgiving traditions. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Some American-Israelis hold on to their Thanksgiving traditions.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Middle Israelis often smirk forgivingly when encountering America’s holidays.
Surveying a Christmas party’s tree with its glittery apples and silver-wrapped presents, they welcome this religiously loaded occasion’s transfiguration as a salute to snowflakes, sleds, and grandfatherly charm, but once back on the American sidewalk Israelis feel a foreign winter’s frost and a foreign holiday’s chill.
Happening by a Halloween party, Israelis feel it is Purim without the plot. And walking by Memorial Day sale signs along Main Street’s storefronts, they search for its difference from the Fourth of July, Labor Day, or Valentine’s Day, while wondering why no siren is sounded and why pedestrians seem so footloose, merry, and blasé.
Such are the puzzlement and foreignness Middle Israelis initially feel on all American holidays; all, that is, except Thanksgiving.
THANKSGIVING strikes Israelis already at the airport terminal and train station, as 50 states morph into a transcontinental beehive where millions rush in every direction, hurrying like pilgrims en route to their shrine.
Such, we then note, are our own terminals, highways, and intersections in the last hours of the Seder’s approach.
And once darkness has fallen and we join locals for the day’s meal, it turns out that, much like our Passover, this holiday, too, brings together extended families, warts and all, and its feast, too, is animated by a narrative of voyage, deliverance, freedom and faith, so much so that we almost expect the child opposite us to rise and ask the four questions.
And when back on the sidewalk, wrapped in autumn’s foliage, we identify with the American “courage to be new,” in the words of Robert Frost; the courage without which there would be no United States, and the spirit of innovation with which Abraham Lincoln fixed Thanksgiving’s date as a way to nurse a wounded nation’s sense of purpose, unity, and hope.
And the following year, even if already back home, we feel a measure of familiarity with Thanksgiving’s approach and a sense of longing with its arrival. This one feast, unlike any other foreign holiday, really speaks to us, because on the day Americans thank God, Israelis thank America.
Israelis thank America because never and nowhere throughout our forbears’ wanderings have the Jews, their heritage, and their identity been welcomed with such sincerity and warmth.
Yes, it wasn’t perfect. There were times when Jews were excluded from many clubs, universities, and high offices, and there was a time when General Grant wrote this and when Henry Ford wrote that, and there was a time when the US locked its gates in the face of European Jewry’s huddled masses.
Even so, the US never even came close to actively pursuing the Jews. Its legislature never passed an anti-Jewish law and its masses never waged a pogrom, except in Phillip Roth’s fiction. To Americans, it was obvious from the onset that the Jews in their midst would be equal and free.
The US “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” George Washington assured the congregation of Newport’s Touro Synagogue. It therefore came to him naturally to wish “the children of the Stock of Abraham who dwell in this land to continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants,” and that each of them “sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree,” and that “the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
THE NEW WORLD’S kindness to the Jews was neither obvious nor immediate.
The first Jew who settled in North America – a carpenter who built the bridges over which Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez and his troops crossed Lake Tenochtitlan before storming the palace of Aztec ruler Montezuma – was burned at the stake in 1521, as were other crypto-Jews in Mexico after him, including 66 in one auto-da-fe in 1649.
None of this would happen to the Jews of the future US, because for the pilgrims of Plymouth, Europe’s religious manias were as repulsive as they were to the Jews. And the more Europeans sailed to that what became the US, the more they arrived there cleansed of their European upbringing’s prejudices, as if they had shed them while somewhere between the continents, like surplus cargo from a struggling ship.
That is why America’s Jews, besides thriving as individuals, also flourished as a faith, and that is why their fellow Americans saluted them when they fought for their kin elsewhere.
In the US, Judaism was not merely tolerated, as it was in many European and Middle Eastern lands. Here, where Abraham Lincoln made the US Army deploy Jewish chaplains, Bible-loving founding fathers admired the Jews as heirs to the ancient Hebrews. That is why they so naturally accepted Judaism as a legitimate faith, and that is why discriminating its followers was to them an abomination.
So positive was the encounter between America and the Jews that it enriched Judaism itself, inspiring a feminist revolution in the synagogue as well as new forms of prayer and new interpretations of ancient texts.
And with the US having been molded while warring for political freedom and racial equality, it came naturally to most Americans to back their Jewish population’s struggles for Soviet Jews’ liberation, and for the defense of the Jewish state.
Still, the Old World never universally admired America.
On the contrary, Uncle Sam’s combination of morality and power roundly unsettled much of the world. These days, too, besmirching America is a common sport practiced with great zeal not only by Middle Eastern Islamists and North Korean communists, but also by South American ultra-socialists, European ultra-liberals, and also some Israeli ultra-Zionists.
That is why we feel this weekend an urge to thank the US, and to remind its citizens that while many in the Old World habitually scorn, deride, and demonize them, most don’t. Middle Israelis, in fact, love America.