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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This piece was jointly authored by Malkie Schwartz and Rabbi Jeremy Simons, reflecting on last night’s grand jury ruling in Ferguson, Missouri and sharing their insights and responses.
In light of the grand jury findings released last night, we may never know what actually happened on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. Some believe Michael Brown was shot without cause, while others—including the grand jury—believe the available evidence demonstrates Officer Darren Wilson felt his life was in danger and acted accordingly. We cannot know what happened in those 90 seconds, but we know what happened next:
Michael Brown’s body lay exposed on the pavement for more than four hours in full view of the public, including his family. We also know that later that night, a Ferguson police officer allowed his dog to urinate on the very spot. Lesley McSpadden, Michael’s mother, watched as police cars intentionally ran over the flowers she placed at the spot where her son was killed.
We also know residents of Ferguson began gathering and demanding justice. Had they not gathered, none of us would today know the name Michael Brown or be able to locate the town of Ferguson. Since August 9, hardly a week has gone by without news of another instance of police brutality. This is not because police brutality has increased dramatically these past five months; it’s because we’re finally being exposed to it.
Exodus teaches that we should not oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt. According to the Talmud, the Torah repeats this commandment in various forms 36 times. Commandments involving the stranger often include mention of the widow and the orphan. These three categories represent those who are most vulnerable in society; those most likely to be abused. We can add to this list the impoverished and the historically oppressed. The town of Ferguson, where more than two-thirds of residents are African American and more than one in four children live below the poverty line, falls into this category.
The incredible repetition of this commandment signals more than just emphasis. The Torah is telling us something here: it’s acknowledging that our own inclination may be to ignore those who we do not know. It’s also telling us—thirty six times—that we cannot ignore them. It’s screaming for our attention because it knows our nature. Our Jewish tradition demands we join those across this country advocating for greater transparency and reform in our law enforcement communities. Just as our tradition recognized our own inclination may be to stand on the sidelines, it also warns of the consequence: the Mishnah teaches that the sword enters our world on account of justice delayed, and justice denied.
Justice is too often delayed, but it cannot be denied.
Yesterday, President Obama honored the lives of James Chaney, Michael Henry Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights workers who were killed in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964. The three men were honored along with 15 civilians who, the President said, “made the world stronger, wiser, more beautiful, and more humane.” It felt strange to see the families of people who lost their lives in pursuit of civil rights being honored alongside, well, Meryl Streep. But in his introduction of Ms. Streep, the President said “She inhabits her characters so fully and compassionately… It is the greatest gift of human beings that we have this power of empathy.”
Empathy. Empathy is what motivated civil rights workers to risk their lives and volunteer in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. After all, they weren’t going to sit by and feel badly for voters who were denied their right to vote. They felt connected to the reality faced by African American citizens in Mississippi and, together, they worked toward justice for all.
Only hours after the award ceremony, we learned that the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri found that there was no probable cause to indict Officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Regardless of what we think about the outcome, this is a time to exercise that power of empathy. To try and imagine the anguish being felt by Michael Brown’s mother, his father, his family, friends and neighbors. To try and imagine what it must feel like to be a young African American living in one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country, and in a city where 63% of the residents are African American and only approximately 5% of the police force is African American. To be a young African American, and know your demographic makes up more than 85% of people stopped and more than 90% of the people searched in 2013 in your hometown. To be African American and keeping hearing about young, unarmed African Americans killed—by the people committed to “serve and protect.”
We are two white Jews, authoring this post; we know we cannot truly understand what it feels like to be Black in Ferguson, or America. But our power of empathy can help us try to do our part to make things better. Let us send an alternative message to all young people, particularly young African Americans, in our communities: We know that there is work to be done and we are willing to follow the lead of those who have historically been most disenfranchised, to do what it takes to make sure that all members of our community are cherished and respected. Justice may be delayed, but it cannot be denied.
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Tent: The South was an immersive learning experience.18 strangers got on a bus and trusted me to show them the Jewish South. Everything that we had worked so hard to put together was experienced, appreciated, and enjoyed by an enthusiastic group of adventurers.
I thought rather than tell you about our adventure – I’d show you the people and places, and describe a few of the surprises and lessons that we explored along the way.
Delta Chinese Reunion: During our afternoon at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, we received a comprehensive and entertaining overview and tour of the Delta region. We discussed the cultural diversity for the region and the influential Chinese population. After stopping for the necessary Fighting Okra memorabilia (surprise- everyone needed a t-shirt!), we made our way to the hotel, where it turned out the the Delta Chinese American Reunion was taking place, in conjunction with the opening of a new exhibition on Delta Chinese heritage. What luck! Everything we had discussed about Jewish communities in the region aligned with the history of Chinese immigrants and communities, and seeing it firsthand further strengthened our understanding of how Jews fit into the story of immigrant communities living and working in the South.
David Feldman: David Feldman wasn’t someone we met, but someone we made a surprise visit to go see. Our Lead Scholar Eric Goldstein alerted me that he had a relative, David Feldman, buried in the Greenwood cemetery. Eric asked if we had time to visit. Based on the schedule, we didn’t. But this trip was turning out to be less about the schedule and more about following the interests of the group so off we went! We found the stone pretty quickly (it’s a small cemetery) and I watched as ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg took a photo of Eric with the stone. Eric mentioned that he’s not sure anyone from his family has ever visited this grave and Gail said she was honored to be a part of the reunion. I think we all had a moment like that on this trip, some small connection or moment that related us to the larger Southern Jewish story.
This trip was filled with people and places that I’m lucky to work with and visit frequently. But one of the main takeaways expressed during our last night together was how fortunate the participants felt to be able to visit these special Southern places, particularly the congregations that may not be as accessible in the next few years. I never like to use the words “dying” or “diminishing” when referring to these congregations, but rather the phrases of the congregants themselves who describe their “small” or “older” groups. We learned so much this week about the strength and warmth of a small congregation and the dedication it takes to continue Jewish life in rural areas.
Another participant mentioned that she was moved during our Shabbat experience in Tupelo when during the Mi Sheberach the congregants each gave reports on the well being of each of the people on the list. She felt a closer connection to the community and how important each individual member is to the life of a congregation. Of all the congregations we visited, we also got a sense that being a member here is almost like a second time job, whether it’s lay leading services or buying the toilet paper, everyone has a role and pitches in. Participants left the South with a charge to find ways to become more engaged in their own communities.
My own personal takeaway? I couldn’t help be feel that being on a bus with non-Southerners solidified by own Southern Jewish Identity. I may not have been born here, but I’m now a happily committed resident and realized during our discussions I more often support, identify with, and sometimes defend the Southern Jewish way of life. Whether I’m talking to a non-Jewish population about Judaism or a non-Southern population about the South, as an educator, sharing is a vital component of how I communicate.
And one last note that resonated with me came from participant who is currently living in Brunswick, Georgia. She said the trip made her realize that she is the next generation for that historic congregation. Many of our discussions spoke about the future of the Jewish South, and she so eloquently described the weight and honor she felt, continuing Jewish life in her community.
This is already a long post, but there’s so much more to share! I invited participants to share their own experiences so you’ll hear from them but you can also see some of this through their eyes on our Tagboard page. Maybe you’ll be inspired to come down for your own Southern Jewish journey!
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