Guest blogger Simcha Weinstein is the rabbi of the Pratt Institute. His latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century, was just released by Barricade Books. His website is www.rabbisimcha.com.
Maybe I’m just a fundamentalist rabbi who’s lost his sense of fun, but when it comes to giving thanks, I don’t get it.
We don’t celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in my native country of England, and can you blame us? Imagine gathering around plates of mushy peas to express your gratitude for another year of record rainfall.
Being new around here, I looked up the history of Thanksgiving and now Iâ€™m more confused than ever. Those Pilgrims and their native neighbors first gathered around the table in 1565, in the month of September. Now that makes sense: celebrating a harvest festival during harvest time. (Thatâ€™s what they still do up in Canada, by the way; their Thanksgiving always falls on the second Monday in October. This year that was also the first night of Sukkot, so that must have made it extra special.)
But November? Did someone just figure we all needed a party between Halloween and Christmas & Hanukkah?
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not because Thanksgiving seems so goyish thanks to all those indelible Norman Rockwell paintings. I think goyish is great; being a child of American culture, I’ve written extensively on its many virtues. And let’s face it: American Jews have much to be thankful for. We enjoy security, civil rights and material success here in the U.S. that we only dreamed of in other nations throughout history.
But I find Christmas more, well, exciting. No, I don’t celebrate it, but my father owned a toy store, so the holiday holds special memories for me. (And this year, December 25 also happens to be my wife’s due date. Please: no manger jokes.)
These days, Thanksgiving marks the official start of the Christmas shopping season, and maybe that’s why it leaves me with mixed feelings. Given the current economic downturn, it seems bizarre to see people shivering in sleeping bags outside the nearest big box store, just to buy their kids latest plasma gadget for a few dollars off. That’s a scary combination of guilt and gelt. Especially since that cool, must-have, state of the art thingamajig will be obsolete right after New Years.
Furthermore, who the heck stuck Thanksgiving a mere 24 hours from Shabbat? That’s like having back-to-back Thanksgivings, and I should know. For the last few years, my family and I have celebrated the holiday with special guests: students at the Pratt Institute where I work. The two special days have many similarities, as my non-Jewish students have often pointed out.
Distinguished theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his beautiful book, “The Sabbath,” that the very essence of the Jewish people is summed up in that prayerful weekly gathering. Shabbat truly is a day of thanksgiving, with its focus on faith, family and friends. The difference is, we gather around the table to prayer instead of around the TV set to watch football game after football game, or another marathon. Shabbat means no radio or telephone or internet, never mind no plasma doohickeys from WalMart.
Look, I’m no Grinch. My blessings on everyone tucking in to a delicious turkey this Thursday (as long as it’s kosher!)
But don’t forget, 24 hours later, to sit down with at least the same reverence for your bowl of matzo ball soup.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.