by Rabbi Mishael Zion
A once in a century holiday is upon us. The menurkey will soon sit at the table with the pumpkin pie and the latkes. Let us not underestimate this moment for the American Jewish community. Thanksgivukkah is here.
Jews have always loved Thanksgiving. Now that their favorite American holiday finds itself face to face with America’s favorite Jewish holiday – Hanukkah – the encounter can say an enormous amount about the American Jewish collective story. In other words, Thanksgivukkah tells us something important about what Jews are doing in America.
It starts with good timing. When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, it highlights Judaism as a religion, a fair contender on the scene of American denominations. But Thanksgivukkah yanks the carpet from under the convenient Christmas-Hanukkah dichotomy.
The Thanksgiving of today grew out of its religious roots. The same could be said of the Judaism of many Americans. Thanksgiving is about America, but not in a celebration of patriotic triumphalism. It’s about America as a promise, an idea, a project. If, any other year, most American Jews sideline Judaism and celebrate Thanksgiving simply as Americans, this year’s calendar demands owning up to the Jewish take on the American story.
In Thanksgivukkah this generation of Jews might just have found their model holiday.
Indeed, if there is an “American Project”, Jews have been some of its most avid contributors. As narrators, critics, troubadours and activists, they took care of themselves while making plenty of room for others.
To be sure, America is far from the only contemporary Jewish story. Jews have not one, but two Promised Lands: Israel and America have become the yin and yang of the Jewish people. As Hillel might have put it: “If I am not for myself – who will be for me?” – such is the Israeli project. “And if I am only for myself, what am I?” – the American Jewish project.
“And if not now, when?”
Thanksgivukkah brings home some of the challenges of a Jewry so invested in America. For the most part, American Judaism has failed at being a homemade identity, outsourcing the task to synagogues, Hebrew schools, Bnai Brith or AIPAC. Yet Hanukkah leaves the synagogues orphaned. With all due respect to public square Menorahs, any halakhist will tell you it’s the Menorah in the home that counts. Thanksgiving is the same: it is a homemade celebration of Americanism; it convenes the family in a feast of gratitude. Pilgrimages by air, track and road attest to the home’s centrality.
Thanksgiving is a much needed model for an increasingly secular American Jewry. Where “cultural Judaism” is often “soft” and “optional”, Thanksgiving has an undeniably “commanding” presence. Who doesn’t come home for Thanksgiving, from wherever that may be? Who doesn’t have a turkey at the table, even if it’s made of tofu? Thanksgiving is an unapologetic model for a cultural identity being a commanding presence in one’s life.
But Hanukkah one-ups Thanksgiving – it turns family time into story time. When asking where the Bible commanded us to light the Hanukkah candles, the Talmud responds: “We learn that we must light candles from the Biblical verse: ‘Ask your father, he will tell you’.” The candles set the stage for a story.
Yet in those rare moments where a family Thanksgiving allows for a discussion, it is often of a “here and now” gratitude. Hanukkah’s gratitude, on the other hand, is rooted. A Thanksgiving-style family meal with Hanukkah-style stories ask us to place the individual narrative on a longer trajectory – why did we come here, how did we achieve the things for which we are grateful, and where do we – individuals, community and country – go from here. That is what Thanksgivukkah should be. It should turn a generation of immediate gratification into one of rooted gratitude. It’s not about religion or musty history, but about the power of local family stories. America and Judaism each face severe struggles adapting to a flat world. Both are undermined by an increasingly divided base. They need their stories more than ever. Ask your mother; she will tell you.
For an American Jewish community increasingly consisting of families of both Jewish and non-Jewish members, Thanksgivukkah is a moment that allows for a diversity of stories at the table. Hanukkah’s Jewish coat over Thanksgiving’s American jersey throws us back to the vision of America as a series of cultural pluralisms. Thanksgivukkah asks us to keep telling the stories that go beyond America.
Thanksgivukkah is an invitation to celebrate the places where Jewishness enriches America, and where America enriches the Jewish people. Jews have always preferred stories to dogma and ritual to creed. This November American Jews are invited to sit down at the Thanksgivukkah table and tell stories of rooted gratitude. Let’s make sure this happens more than just every 70,000 years. Happy Thanksgivukkah.
For further discussion of these ideas, including ideas for family Thanksgivukkah conversations, and links to other Thanksgivukkah resources, visit Text and the City.
Rabbi Mishael Zion is the co-Director of the Bronfman Fellowships, a diverse community of 1,000 young Jewish leaders from North America and Israel. He is the author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices”. Mishael blogs at Text and the City and in 2013 was named one of ten “Rabbis to Watch” by Newsweek/the Daily Beast.