Tag Archives: history

How Thanksgiving Became The Holiday We (All) Now Celebrate

The author and her family, circa 1980.

The author and her family, circa 1980.

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.

Image from Pinehurst, NC Interfaith Thanksgiving event, 2013

Image from Pinehurst, NC Interfaith Thanksgiving event, 2013

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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Posted on November 26, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Yiddish Author You Never Heard Of, And The Southern Jewish Man Who Will Introduce You To Him

Jacob Dinezon

Jacob Dinezon

One of my favorite things about my new role as a full-time historian at the ISJL is getting to meet great people with fascinating stories. The latest example? I recently had the privilege of speaking with Scott Davis, an Emmy award-winning Jewish television producer from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Scott Davis has told stories for a living for most of his life, and he became interested in the traditions of Jewish storytelling toward the end of his career. He began writing plays based on nineteenth century Yiddish culture. While doing research for a play based on the Jewish short stories of I. L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem, two very famous classical nineteenth century Yiddish writers, Scott discovered another important literary figure, Jacob Dinezon.

It turns out Jacob Dinezon was a bestseller in his time (one of his very first novels sold more than 200,000 copies—a massive number in that era!), and he served as a mentor and benevolent uncle of sorts to several writers, but he never became as widely known as his contemporaries like Peretz and Aleichem. Why? Because his works were never translated into English.

Davis feels very passionately about sharing Dinezon’s amazing stories with the rest of the world. In 2007, he founded Jewish Storyteller Press to publish the work of Yiddish authors who deserve more recognition. Initially, he worked with existing English translations of old Yiddish tales. Davis himself doesn’t read Yiddish, so he hired professional scholars to translate directly from the original books. Davis also works with the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of books in the Yiddish language.

Scott Davis

Scott Davis

Davis just published the first English translation of Dinezon’s book, Memories and Scenes, a collection of 11 autobiographical short stories. In this collection, Dinezon recalls his childhood years in the shtetl and the events that led to his passion for becoming a writer. His simple tales provide a firsthand look into 19th-century shtetl life and a treasure trove of Yiddish history, culture and values. What Davis truly admires is the philosophy behind Dinezon’s tales. Hearing him talk about it so passionately, I can see why: Dinezon’s values reflected those of Davis’s father, a man Davis describes as generous and kind, always going out of his way to help other people.

One of the stories, entitled “Borekh,” tells the tale of a young orphan boy living in the yeshiva. Borekh was not very good at studying Talmud; but he was a generous soul, doing things for people and asking nothing in return. As he grew into manhood, he began to explore the question of who he would grow to be as an adult and what his contribution would be to his community. He asked God for help and soon realizes his special ability, woodworking. He make dreidels, Purim groggers, and toy animals for the children of the town. People in the town still looked down on him for not studying like his peers—until he ultimately carves a holy ark for the Torah, making his own significant and lasting contribution to his community.

Davis strongly identified with Borekh and his struggle to find his true calling. An avid clarinet player, he tried to learn to play Klezmer music. He knew he had an interest in promoting Jewish culture, whether in music or literature. After a few sessions, he realized that it wasn’t very good at it, but was he could do was he tell a good story. That love of storytelling has allowed Davis to engage so many individuals in history that could have easily been forgotten.

Like Davis, I see myself as a storyteller and feel fortunate that I get to tell the stories of Southern Jewry. Each of us offers a unique contribution in preserving Jewish heritage and ultimately, making a positive difference in our communities. Taking a cue from Scott Davis, we can all work together to make sure the story of our Jewish legacy continues.

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Posted on November 17, 2014

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One Place Can Be Many Different Spaces

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City. The museum, which can only be experienced through a guide-led tour, immerses you in the tenement story. Through the lens of the building itself, this museum tells the story of thousands of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries by exploring sections of one particular building on the Lower East Side that was home to many different people since 1863.

The Fairview Inn (image courtesy of The Fairview Inn)

The Fairview Inn (image courtesy of The Fairview Inn)

The tour I went on focused on the bottom level of the building, where numerous shops have rested over the years. As my group walked down the steps into the building, we were transported to 1870, to a German lager saloon. We learned about the couple who owned the saloon, their hardships, adopted children, the organizations they were members of, and imagined their lives in the very space we were sitting. Next, we learned about the kosher grocery store, the kosher butcher shop, and the peddler’s store that resided in the same space that was once a saloon.

As we learned more about each shop that inhabited this space, I thought about how amazing it was that such varied stories existed there—a German lager saloon, a kosher butcher, a lingerie store. I imagined all the owners sitting down for dinner together, discussing the hardships of owning a business in New York City.

I felt similarly about an historic building in Jackson—The Fairview Inn.

The first time I went to the Fairview Inn, I met with members of the selection committee for Jewish Cinema Mississippi, the Jewish film festival that takes place each January in Jackson. As we were drinking gourmet cocktails named for Mississippi authors (the bar at the Fairview is called The Library Lounge), I listened to the history of the bed and breakfast. The previous owner, who turned the space into a bed and breakfast, was William Simmons.

Simmons was born in Utica, MS in 1916 and grew up in Jackson, MS. He founded the Citizens’ Council in Jackson, which was a part of a network of white supremacist organizations. The groups opposed racial integration in the 1950s and 60s, using intimidation, economic boycotts, propaganda, and violence. Simmons functioned as editor and publisher of The Citizen, Administrator of Citizens’ Councils of America, and President of Citizens’ Council Forum. As a Citizens’ Council representative, he appeared on television and spoke to audiences across the nation. Upon hearing this, I felt a bit nervous in the space. I imagined Council meetings taking place where I was sitting.

But this place is now an entirely different sort of space: In 2006, the Fairview was purchased from Simmons by Peter and Tamar Sharp—a Jewish couple.

There is now a mezuzah on the front door, and Jewish organizational meetings often take place inside. This place is not The Fairview Inn of the past. Walking through the building, you can still learn about its history—but it is an entirely different space today.

Since I moved to Mississippi in June, I’ve had the chance to learn about the complex and inspiring history of Jews in the South. There’s something about living here I haven’t quite been able to put into words. While spending a few days with the TENT tour last week, Dr. Eric Goldstein perfectly captured what I’ve been feeling—he said that there’s an incredible weight of history here. This weight lends a feeling of significance and sanctity to sites that might otherwise seem ordinary. Sitting at the Fairview Inn, I think about the role we play in repurposing spaces, that spaces are shaped by the people who inhabit them.

Do you know the history of the space you live or work in? Does this history impact the way you experience that space today? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Posted on November 13, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy