Thanksgiving is a special holiday for me, because I can celebrate it with my Christian family. For many Jews like myself, who have not only friends but also family of other faiths, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to come together. It is a holiday embodying values important both in Judaism and American culture.
However, this embrace of Thanksgiving by people of all faiths was not always the case.
Prior to Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 of the annual national holiday in November, Thanksgiving was a regional event. It supposedly was first observed in 1631 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with Pilgrims breaking bread with the local Native Americans who helped them with their successful harvest. However, this image of the supposed-first Thanksgiving has become fraught with controversy, since history makes clear that beyond the first joint “Thanksgiving,” mutual peace, dependence, and friendship did not characterize Native American/Pilgrim relations—but that’s another blog post.
With time, the holiday came to serve as symbol for national unity, but one that was still rooted in a primarily Protestant Christian understanding. The Continental Congress gave the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1777, which stressed that observance would “please God through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance.” In 1844, South Carolina Governor Hammond called on Thanksgiving for the citizens of his state to join in worship, as “becomes all Christian nations…. to God their creator, and his Son Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World.” In response, Jews in Charleston protested. They refused to observe Thanksgiving publicly in the synagogues, keeping the two buildings closed on the holiday and accused Hammond of violating the constitution of South Carolina. Hammond’s reply? “I have always thought it a settled matter that I lived in a Christian land.” Rather than continuing an intemperate debate, they resolved to publish all of the correspondence in the press, allowing “public opinion of the country” to decide the issue.
The official federal holiday was enacted during the Civil War when this nation was in the midst of a tumultuous struggle. The editor of Godey’s magazine, Sarah Josepha Hale, issued yearly editorials, beginning in 1846, encouraging the “Great American Festival” of Thanksgiving be widely adopted. She hoped that a unifying holiday would help avert the prospect of a civil war. Her appeal for a national day of thanksgiving was successful, and Lincoln put forth a national proclamation in November of 1863. Secretary of State Seward called on the nation to observe the day “with one heart and voice,” to bring about peace. The holiday stressed the act of a “family homecoming,” and helped ease the dislocations of wars, industrial and commercial revolutions, and social unrest.
It also helped Jews feel more included in the American experience.
Scholars like Beth Wenger in History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage argue that over time, Thanksgiving has proven to be an especially fortuitous holiday for Jews, who saw its similarity to Sukkot, pointing out that the Pilgrims were greatly influenced by Jewish teachings in the Bible. Almost since their first arrival in America, Jews sponsored celebrations of American holidays as a way of asserting both their allegiance to American civic ideals and the symbiosis of Jewish and American values. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews even made a practice of celebrating Thanksgiving in synagogues while Christians were doing the same in churches. With time, it became popular to participate in interfaith ceremonies. Indeed, this trend continues across the country in places like Pinehurst, North Carolina and Sun Valley, Idaho.
Despite its complicated past, Thanksgiving can serve as a reminder that even in our troubled times, we can still give thanks. Practicing gratitude in one’s everyday life is as good for a person as exercise or healthy living. It keeps us centered, humble, and ultimately, empathetic. It is that empathy for others around us that defines us both as a Jewish community and country, and it can continue to help all of us, despite our differences, tackle difficulties in the future.
I will be grateful to gather for this ecumenical celebration with my own religiously diverse family. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
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Today’s guest post is from our friend (and one of our favorite scholars!) Dr. Joel M. Hoffman. Last year, we shared a piece from Michele Schipper about why her Jewish family celebrates Halloween. This year, we asked Joel for his scholarly insights on the holiday, its history, and whether or not celebrating Halloween conflicts with Jewish identity. Turns out, he had already written a good deal on the subject on his own blog, and was generous enough to let us share some of it here, too. You can learn more about Joel and his work on his website. Enjoy this not-so-scary Halloween treat!
When I was 11 years old, a grumpy Israeli teacher told me that good Jews don’t dress up for Halloween because it’s a Christian holiday when Christians persecuted Jews.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
First of all, Halloween began as a Pagan holiday, not Christian. The Celtic Pagan year was divided into two halves. The first half, roughly from spring to fall, was for the world of light, and the second half was for the world of darkness. Holidays marked the transitions from each half to the other.
In spring, Beltane celebrated the spiritual beginning of light-filled summer days and the life-giving force of the sun.
By contrast, Samhain (pronounced “sow-an”), the precursor to Halloween, fell on November 1 and represented summer’s end, winter nights, and, in general, darkness. As is typical of gateways and transitions (which are known technically as “liminal” times), Samhain was regarded with suspicion and even reverence. It was seen as a bridge between two opposite worlds: the human world of light and good on one hand, and the netherworld of darkness and evil on the other. Samhain was the time when the inhabitants of the latter might cross over to the former.
The custom of masks and costumes probably comes from the holiday’s general celebratory character. Some people may have dressed up specifically as ghouls to chase away the real evil powers, perhaps hoping that the denizens of the netherworld would try to distribute themselves evenly, and, seeing an abundance in one place, would go elsewhere. Or they may have thought that even the goblins were afraid of other goblins.
The Catholic Church highlighted the theme of the dead on the holiday when it adapted Samhain for its own purposes, merging it into its existing day for saints. All Saints Day, as it was called, was a time for recognizing the power the saints have over the still living. In some traditions, people paid special homage to the newly dead or offered prayers on behalf of the souls stuck in purgatory, hoping to pave a way to heaven rather than hell. Some people carried candles in turnips to represent the souls stuck in purgatory. In America, these would become our jack o’lanterns.
Since Catholic mass was held on the day, All Saints Day was also called All Saints Mass, the Middle English for which is Alholowmesse, and the Modern English for which is Hallowmas. (Christmas similarly gets its name from the mass held for Christ.)
Because the Catholic Church at the time still followed the Jewish tradition of reckoning days from sundown to sundown, Alholowmesse actually began on the evening before November 1, that is, on the evening of October 31, which was called Alholowevening, or more colloquially Alholowe’en. That gave us our Modern English name Halloween.
In addition to offering words of prayer for the dead, some Christians prepared physical food for their departed loves ones. Once food was potentially available, the poor wanted in on the action, and before long, the holiday became, in part, a day for begging (leading to Shakespeare’s image of “a beggar at Hallowmas”).
But the Puritans who largely founded America despised both the Pagan and Catholic aspects of Halloween, and in this country Halloween was never regarded as a sectarian celebration. It wasn’t even on most American calendars until the mid-nineteenth century. When it finally did take root, it was a mixture of pranks, dress up, jack o’lanterns, and candy, none of which is un-Jewish in any way.
So my grumpy Israeli teacher was wrong. He was equally wrong when he told me that Halloween was created to persecute Jews. There were no Jews living among the Celts when Samhain arose, and the Jews had already been exiled from England by the time the Christians turned Samhain into All Saints Day there.
But he was most severely wrong in his general approach. He failed to distinguish the history of the holiday from the holiday itself. If we abandoned everything that had a disagreeable history, we’d have to give up many of our favorite Jewish rituals, too.
Whatever their non-Jewish roots, American holidays such as Thanksgiving and, yes, Halloween are now symbols of pluralism, yearly signposts advertising America’s freedom and tolerance. These holidays are an opportunity for Americans, regardless of background, to come together and share an experience. And they can be an enormous amount of fun.
Pluralism, tolerance, community, and fun are all Jewish ideals. So I’ll continue to look forward to greeting bizarrely dressed children as they come to my door and ask for treats.
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You know that song that’s been playing on the radio? That one with the really catchy tune that you just can’t get out of your head? We all have one.
For Vikki Goldstein of B’nai Israel Congregation in Pensacola, Florida, that song was Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” This song is so catchy that Vikki wanted a Sukkot version to teach the students at B’nai Israel. So she called me, since I’m her Education Fellow, wanting to know if I had any ideas for lyrics or ways to use the song.
Along with my fellow Fellows, and Rabbi Matt Dreffin, we went a step beyond lyrics. Vikki’s call led to this fun video… which now, we’re sharing not only with Vikki’s Pensacola students, but also with everyone who wants to get in on the #ShakeLulav fun:
Sukkot is a time for welcoming guests and celebrating nature. Part of the celebration includes shaking the lulav (palm fronds, myrtle leaves, and willow branches) together with an etrog (citrus fruit) to encourage rain and prosperity in the next growing season.
It’s all celebratory, and the perfect excuse to sing and dance along to this peppy tune. Enjoy the video, which includes dancing, a dinosaur, mad music making, costumes… and would any Southern & Jewish Sukkot video without a dancing Elvis impersonator? No way! So we got one—and our Elvis is pretty fun.
Chag sameach – a happy holiday!