By Harriet P. Gross
For years, the American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Center for American Pluralism has published “America’sTable: A Thanksgiving Reader,” in cooperation with African American, Hispanic, Asian and Islamic organizations. It helps everyone “celebrate our diverse roots and shared values” as we sit down on this unifying U.S. holiday. The idea is to remember that today is about far more than good food — important as that may be.
At our tables, AJCommittee says, we can reconnect with our various pasts by answering our children’s questions: When did our families come to America? Why? How did they get here? What did they find when they arrived? Not every journey was easy, we’re reminded, or even voluntary. But all of us have our roots in such a journey, of one kind or another.
When my children were small and asked these questions, my answers were simple, straightforward and similar to those of many other American Jews of my generation. My grandparents arrived on ships, young people before the turn of the 20th century seeking better lives than those afforded Jews in their native Lithuania, Russia, Austria-Hungary. They met and married here, where they did not find the streets paved with gold, but did find the opportunity to have children in safety and raise families in peace, if not in affluence.
Today, after the Cowboys game, I’ll sit down at my in-town cousins’ table, with out-of-town cousins present, to share a bountiful holiday meal. And tomorrow, already tired of turkey, that family will gather again at my house, this time with friends, for an annual post-Thanksgiving brisket buffet. I am profoundly grateful for such occasions.
Throughout this season, I constantly give thanks:
•For memories of my Boubby the Philosopher, who brought her Thanksgiving turkeys to the table in pieces, because she could never believe that a bird was clean unless she inspected it inside as well as out before cooking.
•For my father’s life, far too short, yet long enough for him to enjoy two of his four grandchildren; and for my mother’s life, long enough that she could hold one great-grandchild — the first of seven — as well.
•For my children, who once asked all the questions above, and for their children, who have already asked the same questions of their parents.
•For my own life, already much longer than that of my father and approaching the length of that of my mother, characterized by what I like to think of as “healthy aging.”
•For the fact that I am privileged to share my thoughts and ideas (sentimental as some of them may be!) with you each week — to raise some questions and some hackles, but to count all of you as friends.
I hope you’ve done some advance thank-you thinking this year. If not, there’s probably still some time for it before you slice into that holiday bird. And as you sit down at your table, please also think of this, which I’ll be considering as we sit down at ours:
Last week, an unusual pre-holiday dinner was held at the University of Texas at Dallas. Oxfam America, founded in 1970 to do whatever possible to alleviate poverty around the world, has come to school there as a recognized campus organization, and this year staged its first “Hunger Banquet.” Here’s how it worked:
Everyone attending made the same contribution to the cause, then drew, at random, a ticket for his/her mealtime assignment. Seats were parceled out according to imaginary income levels as they are approximated worldwide: 15 percent high, 35 percent medium, 50 percent low. Lucky folks landing in the first tier were served a sumptuous repast — somewhat like the Thanksgiving dinners you and I are enjoying today. The folks in the middle filled up on rice and beans. The ones on the bottom also got rice, but only water came with it. Afterward, everyone stuck around (even the hungry ones, before they went off to the nearest fast-food place!) to talk about the experience.
None of us hosting our 2008 holiday dinner would want to triage our guests like that, and I wouldn’t try it tomorrow, either. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing for you and me to remind those sharing our festive meals that at least half the world’s citizens are subsisting on rice and water, or the equivalent, and we can help them — not by eating less ourselves, but by contributing more. To Oxfam. To Mazon, the Jewish initiative that combats hunger. To give more lives something more to give thanks for.
Have a happy, thoughtful Thanksgiving.
By Harriet P. Gross