Families and friends gathered around a table set with their finest China; Wine poured, and candles lit; a large meal ready to be eaten that includes dishes steeped in tradition, it sounds almost Jewish.
For many, Thanksgiving, with its familial setting and reliance on tradition — not to mention a poultry centerpiece — feels similar to a Shabbat dinner and is the most Jewish of secular holidays, well except for the inclusion of a television set often broadcasting a football game.
In fact, there seems to be at least some belief that the holiday was influenced by Sukkot, a Jewish holiday that also celebrates the bounty of a harvest.
Gloria Kaufer Greene, author of the “New Jewish Holiday Cookbook” was quoted in a Jewish Journal interview saying that the pilgrims based many of their customs on the Bible.
“They knew Sukkot was an autumn harvest festival,” she said, “and there is evidence that they fashioned the first Thanksgiving after the Jewish custom of celebrating the success of the year’s crops.”
In the same article, Linda Burghardt, author of “Jewish Holiday Traditions” said “Sukkot is considered a model for Thanksgiving. Both holidays revolve around showing gratitude for a bountiful harvest.”
Beth Schwartz never made the connection between the holiday and Jewish tradition until she was doing graduate work in St. Louis. Rather than make the trek home to California, she stayed in the Midwestern city and celebrated the holiday with an aunt, uncle and cousins.
“My uncles said the shehecheyanu at the beginning of the Thanksgiving meal, which I thought was weird at the time because it’s not a Jewish holiday and you say that to mark a new Jewish occasion,” she remembered. “He said, ‘This is a time for family and friends to gather together and every season we’re together, we should commemorate that.’”
Because of its basis in Sukkot, she ventured, the holiday feels as if it has religious themes not present in most secular holidays, which usually have patriotic themes.
“In Israel, that would feel Jewish but not in America,” she said. “Thanksgiving celebrates the theme of thankfulness, which is very Jewish. I mean, we have a prayer of thanksgiving in our services.”
Abby Mendelson recalled that Thanksgiving was his mother-in-law, Fran Newman’s, favorite American holiday, for multiple reasons.
The family, he explained, had varying degrees of religiosity, so it was hard to get together for a Jewish holiday. Thanksgiving presented a simple alternative.
“This, based on one meal in one evening, with no liturgy, was easy,” he said.
Mendelson said that his mother-in-law was a wonderful, kind generous woman, who, importantly, was also the oldest first American born in her family. Her parents, he noted, survived many trials and tribulations to get to the country and those left behind in Europe were murdered in one pogrom or another.
For a community of aliens who have made the United States their home, he said, Thanksgiving is a good time to feel American. It’s culinary traditions: comfort food in great proportion, a menu everyone can enjoy and then everyone’s able to get home in one piece before winter grips the country and travel is more difficult.
“Everything that’s been added to it is benign,” he said, “designed to make us feel more like Americans: touch football, some TV, frenzied consumer shopping, no wars to discuss. No politics or uniforms necessary. No, ‘who fought in the big one’ and ‘who dodged the draft.’ It’s perfect for Jews to feel good and fit in.”
Like Mendelson, Hadassa Feinhandler Kamensky grew up appreciative of her family’s life in America.
“We grew up saying every day is Thanksgiving,” she said, “so this is kind of like an anniversary to celebrate that.”
And while she’s grateful for the life she has in America, there was one part of the holiday, followed by Shabbat, which became too much.
As she explained it, like most Americans, her family enjoyed turkey on Thanksgiving and, like many Jewish families, they enjoyed it again on Shabbos. At some point, she tired of the doubleheader. When she started her own family, a new tradition was born, pizza Thursday.
The abbreviated holiday meal made it easy for the family to enjoy another tradition: Black Friday sales.
“We’d wake up at 3 or 5 o’clock in the morning, and our Shabbos meal would be turkey,” she said.
Kamensky said the extended family, which would gather around the holiday, would enjoy another bygone tradition: going to Olan Mills.
“We’d have a family portrait for Thanksgiving,” she said.
No matter what part of the tradition she remembered, one recurring theme was present in all of Kamensky’s memories: family.
Mendelson, too, pointed out the importance of family to Thanksgiving, an idea present in many Jewish holidays.
“As the Gershwin brothers wrote, ‘Who could ask for anything more,’” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org