By now it seems that the entire Jewish world is abuzz about Thanksgivukkah, the once in a lifetime convergence of Hanukkah (choose your spelling) and Thanksgiving. There are stories on NPR and The New York Times, sweet potato latke recipes everywhere you look, and even a kickstarter campaign by a fourth grader to design a “menurky” that raised $48,000. Perhaps the height of absurdity is that Thanksgivukkah even has its own Twitter account.
Why all the fuss?
Let’s be clear: the convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is a big deal for Jews, but not so much for American society. Frankly, most non-Jewish Americans I have spoken with are mildly amused and politely supportive, but hardly excited about the overlap of the two holidays. For Jews, though, it is as if this year is Hanukkah’s debutante ball—a coming out party for the holiday to symbolize it finally warranting conversation within—if not wholesale merger with—American culture. I can’t help but wonder whether, for fairly secular Jews, the excitement stems from the fact that Hanukkah, for the first time in as long as I can remember, will not culturally serve as the ugly step-sister of the melodious, ornately decorated, and wholly secularized Christmas. It is being viewed as an equal, as the name Thanksgivukkah itself suggests.
But I would like to suggest a more constructive role for Thanksgivukkah. While some are bemoaning the merger of these two holidays, I think there are at least two reasons why both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans alike benefit from the convergence of the two. First, as my colleague Laura Duhan Kaplan eloquently wrote, Thanksgivukkah provides a wonderful opportunity for re-telling, and therefore revitalizing, the Hanukkah story. This is entirely in keeping with Jewish tradition, where Hanukkah has been retold, and reinterpreted, many times throughout our history (after all, the miracle of the oil lasting eight days doesn’t even appear in the two Books of the Maccabbees, but only “surfaces” centuries later in the Talmud).
Second, I think Thanksgivukkah has potential to be instructive and wisdom-creating for Jews and non-Jews. Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday for gratitude. It is, as its name connotes, a day for giving thanks for the bounty we enjoy in our lives. Gratitude, of course, is an important part of Judaism, as it is in all religions. It is the ethical posture with which we begin each day when reciting the prayer Modeh Ani. A famous Jewish saying, from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 4:1 posits:
Who is rich? One who appreciates what one has.” We are encouraged in the Talmud to recite 100 blessings each day (BT Menachot 42b) as a means of reflecting upon our good fortune and expressing gratitude.
But Hanukkah is not primarily about gratitude. It is about (re-)dedication. Gratitude is (at least within Judaism) inherently passive, a mental process of reflection and appreciation, of self-cultivation. Dedication is about taking action, about embodying values, about doing what is necessary to enable a life of sacred meaning. The original purpose of celebrating Hanukkah (outside of the sordid political machinations of the Hasmoneans that, frankly, would make the Borgias dynasty blush) was to enable the Judeans to celebrate the fall harvest of Sukkot which they hadn’t previously been able to due to the profane state of the Temple under Seleucid rule. That is what the “dedication” was all about, and also why Hanukkah and Sukkot are both 8 days long. This lesson of dedication, of action in pursuit of the holy and the good, is one which all of American society would do well to receive. Especially in Washington, we do a great job of talking ad nauseum, but we seem incapable of even the most common-sense action.
Of course, action in pursuit of the holy, unmediated by gratitude, can lead to the zealotry that ultimately destroyed Judea and is currently causing unspeakable tragedy throughout the Middle East. But gratitude unmediated by dedicated action equals mere platitude; it is a Hallmark card that is politely read and then thrown away. The duality of gratitude and dedication is what makes Thanksgivukkah a truly special holiday. So let’s take advantage of Thanksgivukkah this year and spread the message of why we, as Americans, need both gratitude and dedication if we want to prosper as a society. After all, it is going to be another 70,000 years before we have another opportunity to do so!
Maybe even a re-dedication, which is the literal meaning of the word Hanukkah.
Do you know how challenging it can be for rabbis, teachers and writers to come up with a new Hanukkah insight every year?
This year, the blogosphere overflows with creative teachings.
Aren’t change and creativity part of the fun of celebrating a holiday year after year? It’s great to return to the candles, singing, latkes, and the story of the Maccabees. And it’s also great to make a new menorah, learn new songs, try new recipes, and retell the story in a different way.
Actually, retelling the story in a different way is a very old tradition. Neither Thanksgiving nor Hanukkah has clear foundations in recorded history. Our very earliest descriptions of both holidays offer multiple interpretations.
Three eyewitness accounts from 1621 describe the first Thanksgiving season in Plymouth’s English colony.
William Bradford describes the great bounty at Plymouth: fish, fowl, and Indian corn. Yes, folks, he says, all those letters home about how great things are in the New World are true.
Edward Winslow explains that one day the Englishmen were out playing with their guns. The local Indians, though bound by a formal peace treaty, came to investigate. Everyone went hunting together, and then feasted for three days.
William Hilton affirms the natural abundance and the good relationships with the local Indians, but tells a harsher truth. Members of the English colony “were sick and weak, with very small means.”
No wonder some people use Thanksgiving to celebrate multicultural cooperation; while others focus on abundant feasting; and still others count their blessings, simply grateful to be alive another year. Each theme is a part of the original story of Thanksgiving, depending on which original story you follow.
Maccabees I gives a political account of events. Alexander the Great was tolerable as conquerors go, but one of the local Syrian Greek rulers, Antiochus, was not. Antiochus was a petty tyrant, and the Judeans, led by the Hasmoneans, successfully rebelled against him. The Hasmonean military leaders restored the Temple, lit the menorah, and gradually took over the priesthood.
Maccabees II gives a conservative religious account of events, showing the hand of God behind the political history. The Judeans had fallen away from true spiritual practice, activating Divine wrath. Thus, God allowed Antiochus to invade. But Judah Maccabee called the Judeans back to true worship; God’s anger turned to compassion; and the Judean forces were victorious.
Five hundred years later, the Talmud introduces a new detail not found in either book of Maccabees. When the Hasmonean forces tried to restore the Temple, they found only one jar of pure oil, sufficient for only one day’s lighting. They lit the menorah anyway and through a miracle, the oil burned for eight days. The holiday was established to commemorate the miracle.
The usual teachings about Hanukkah are based not in fact but on these highly creative accounts. Hanukkah reminds us to gather political strength under oppression, to remain culturally true to Judaism, to know God performs miracles when we need them, and that the light of our soul shines bright even when hidden by difficult times.
Knowing how flexible the meaning of Hanukkah has always been, I am enjoying Thanksgivukkah teachings with no guilt whatsoever. The convergence has brought into focus a wonderful set of possible meanings for Hanukkah.
Thanksgiving is about gratitude; so, too, is Hanukkah. Hanukkah is about being Jewish, and being Jewish means being grateful. Our name “Jews” comes from the Biblical name “Judah,” which means “gratitude.”
Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest. So, too, does Hanukkah. The original eight-day celebration of a restored Temple was modeled on the eight days of Sukkot, the Jewish harvest holiday. Sukkot, taught the prophet Zechariah, could be shared by all cultures and religious traditions.
Thanksgiving is a deeply meaningful cultural event that cuts across religious and ethnic divisions. So, too, is Hanukkah. The themes of gratitude and hope are deep spiritual experiences for religious and secular Jews alike.
Thanksgivukkah reminds me how flexible Jewish tradition has always been in helping us find meaning. Perhaps that’s my favorite teaching of all.
Image: Seth Goldstein wears a Thanksgivukkah hat. Cross-posted at SophiaStreet.