Bintel Blog

To Be Thankful, or Not to Be Thankful for Thanksgiving — That Is the Question

By Daniel Treiman

  • Print
  • Share Share

For most American Jews, Thanksgiving is a no-brainer. You get together with family, you eat — what’s not to like?

Well, it turns out, Rabbi Jill Jacobs — who writes consistently thoughtful posts for Jewish Funds for Justice’s blog JSpot — is no fan of the holiday. But unlike some ultra-Orthodox Jews (see this article for a summary of the debate over whether Thanksgiving is asur, or forbidden), Jacobs’s reservations are of a less particularistic bent:

My problem is not that I think the holiday is asur, or even that I think that the sins of the Pilgrims overshadow any future attempts to find meaning in Thanksgiving. Rather, I find Thanksgiving to represent some of the blandest parts of American life. Thanksgiving has almost as many rituals as some Jewish holidays–there’s the Turkey carving (tofurkey in my house), the ritual foods, the football game, and perhaps the quick round of “What are you thankful for?” And then, the next day, there’s the shopping.

With the possible exception of butternut squash and pecan pie, none of these are rituals that I’m eager to incorporate into my sense of what it means to be an American Jew. I am proud to be an American because of the (sometime) history of democracy, opening our doors to immigrants, and pursuing equality for all. I wish that we honored this tradition by spending Thanksgiving protesting unjust policies and working toward just ones. I even wish that we spent Thanksgiving telling our own immigration stories, grappling with the complications of American history, and thinking about how we want to act in the future. (Yes–I know that AJC puts out an interfaith Thanksgiving haggadah to this effect, but I haven’t heard that the holiday has drastically changed as a result).

Instead, we get a holiday that’s about stuffing ourselves, watching large & overpaid men jump all over each other (probably while women fans are encouraged to flash their breasts), and preparing to max out our credit cards yet again. (many people also spend time on Thanksgiving volunteering at a local soup kitchen, but–of course–these noble efforts do little to stop the growing incidence of hunger in our wealthy nation.) Other than (tofu) Turkey replacing (veggie) burgers, Thanksgiving is little different from July 4, Memorial Day, Labor Day, or any of the other holidays that have lost any real meaning and have just become one more excuse for gluttony and worship of the gods of commercialism.

I’m proud to be an American Jew. But I’ll take mine without the cranberry sauce.

While some of her critique rings true, I think her decision to give up on Thanksgiving is the wrong one. Just because most people tend to forget that Chanukah is about the Maccabees and that Memorial Day honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice doesn’t mean we should stop observing these holidays. Instead, we should try to observe them the right way.

Thanksgiving, for its part, is certainly rich with meaning. For believers and non-believers alike, it’s an opportunity to give thanks for our many blessings. For the more religiously disposed patriots among us, it reminds us of God’s Providence at the dawn of our nation’s history. And while there is no shortage of things to be ashamed of when it comes to the European encounter with the New World’s inhabitants, Thanksgiving is about cooperation not conquest, pointing to a better world that could have been. Finally, of course, there’s the tie-in to religious freedom, an American tradition that’s served us all well.

In many ways, Thanksgiving has the potential to be for Americans what Passover is for Jews. While Passover is the origin story of the Jewish people, Thanksgiving brings us back to the beginnings of America. And just as Passover is the most widely observed of Jewish holidays, marked even by the most resolutely secular among us, Thanksgiving is enthusiastically embraced by Americans of (almost) all religious and ethnic backgrounds. It is a day of national unity. Perhaps these similarities are why, as Jacobs notes, the American Jewish Committee created a “Haggadah” — her word, I think — for the Thanksgiving holiday. (And, I must confess, I personally have been known to break kashrut on the holiday in order to partake of non-kosher turkey at friends’ houses, since I see the Thanksgiving bird as an American sacrament.)

So c’mon Jill Jacobs, don’t give up on Thanksgiving. Instead, lend your passion and eloquence to the important project of reclaiming the holiday’s deeper meaning. What do you have to lose? The worst thing that could happen is you’d end up eating a few too many slices of Pecan pie.

Chag sameach!


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Thanksgiving

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.


Comments
Arieh Lebowitz Fri. Nov 23, 2007

Just to add to the discussion, I'd seen a few articles in recent days that theorized that the Pilgrims were to some degree inspired by Sukkos, 'er, Sukkot, when they had their first Thanksgiving, and that some of the patterns of early Thanksgivings' observances were similarly modeled on the Jewish holiday.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.