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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If you’re wondering whether or not Jews should send valentines, give chocolates, and generally “feel the love” when it comes to Valentine’s Day, you should read this excellent, nuanced piece on the topic. If you want to celebrate the Jewish Valentine’s Day (yes, there is one – kind of), that won’t be until late summer.
If, however, you have already decided that yes, you want to observe Valentine’s Day in some way, and by gosh, you want it to be a FUNNY VALENTINE (because… Barbra, obviously, y’all!), well, you’ve come to the right place.
I started with these:
I love you more than matzoh ball soup. #JewishValentines
Can I call you sometime? My Bubbe thinks I should. #JewishValentines
Be mine! (In a progressive, egalitarian sort of way. And of course I’m asking, not telling.) #JewishValentines
Then I also started thinking about what #SouthernJewishValentines might look like:
We may be a minority within a minority, but the majority of my heart is yours. #SouthernJewishValentines
When you said “shalom y’all,” I knew we were meant to be. #SouthernJewishValentines
We may disagree on SEC teams, but we’ll always have Shabbat. #SouthernJewishValentines
So, if you’re celebrating this holiday or just giggling at it, enjoy the day – and share any great #JewishValentines or #SouthernJewishValentines you come up with on social media, to make some of your fellow Funny Valentines keep on laughing!
On this Memorial Day, we recall all those who have given their lives defending our freedom.
Throughout American history, Jews have served alongside their fellow American citizens, in every war, and in many countries. We mourn the loss and salute the sacrifice of all soldiers – Jewish and non-Jewish, from the South and throughout the nation.
Image of D-Day soldier Robert M. Pierson’s headstone courtesy of Pedroserafin through Creative Commons license.