American Jew or Jewish American? Thanksgiving makes no distinctions

Posted on 17 November 2011 by admin

By Laura Seymour

Thanksgiving is almost upon us and the messages of this day are many. The importance of being thankful and the value of expressing those thanks are crucial lessons for our children to learn. My favorite Jewish educator, Joel Lurie Grishaver, has some suggestions about how to combine the sacred and the secular — or rather, how one can place Jewish tradition with an American holiday. His thoughts can be found in his book “40 Things You Can Do to Save the Jewish People.” He writes, “It is important to treat Thanksgiving as a Jewish ritual meal and thereby blend Jewish and American values into a single expression. … Thanksgiving has always had its own rituals. … We had never thought to make it Jewish — we had never thought to remember that when the Pilgrims were gathering that first fall harvest in their new land, they went back to the Bible and found their own way of bringing the Sukkot ritual alive.”

In other words, Grishaver points out that Thanksgiving can be considered a “Pilgrim” version of Sukkot; that is Sukkot without the lulav and etrog and with the cranberry sauce and popcorn. The American Thanksgiving offers blessings for the harvest — so does Sukkot. Eating al fresco, as one does during Sukkot might be stretching things a little, however — November, even in Texas, can be quite chilly. But as Grishaver writes:

“The moment I figured out that Thanksgiving wasn’t just an American holiday, my world changed. I was no longer involved in a thousand discussions about Jewish American or American Jew. There was no question of priorities — the answer was simple.”

As a result, making Kiddush before eating turkey make a lot of sense, as does reciting the motzi for the breaking of bread. Grishaver writes, and I agree, that Kiddush adds another dimension to the American holiday in that it melds spirit with the food.

Now, Grishaver’s words might be a little too sophisticated for young minds to comprehend. This is where Barbara Cohen’s book “Molly’s Pilgrim” can help. The story is based on a true experience in Cohen’s family that occurred around the turn of the century. The main character is Molly, whose family immigrated from Russia and found themselves in Winter Hill, N.Y. In this small town, third-grader Molly is the only Jewish girl, and she is mercilessly teased by the other girls.

When Molly’s teacher, Miss Stickley, decides that for Thanksgiving, each child should design a pilgrim or Indian for a class diorama and present it to the class, Molly’s mother suggests the pilgrim be dressed as a Russian immigrant. Much like the pilgrims, Molly and her family also came to America seeking religious freedom and freedom from persecution. Though the other kids deride Molly for her “pilgrim,” Miss Stickley points out that Molly’s doll is very appropriate for the holiday.

“Listen to me, all of you,” Miss Stickley says to her class. “Molly’s mother is a Pilgrim. She’s a modern Pilgrim. She came here, just like the Pilgrims long ago, so she could worship God in her own way, in peace and freedom. I’m going to put this beautiful doll on my desk where everyone can see it all the time. It will remind us all the Pilgrims are still coming to America.”

Clearly, Thanksgiving is more than eating a lot of turkey and stuffing, as delicious as that may be. It’s a teachable holiday during which many comparisons can be drawn.

Whatever your family traditions, remember to recite the Shehechiyanu, an important prayer thanking God for ensuring we are around for special occasions.

Laura Seymour is director of Camping Services and Lifelong Learning at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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