Thanksgivukkah Makes a Mockery of the Jewish Message of Difference

by Simon Klarfeld

Apart from being a cutesy term that has gained popularity on the web – including its very own Wikipedia entry – the newly-coined hybrid “Thanksgivukkah” begs a deeper exploration of the two holidays it represents, namely, Thanksgiving and Chanukkah.

While enthusiasts are hailing the double celebration as a once-in-a-lifetime event, the fundamental differences between the two festivals places the semantic merger in a theological minefield.

Thanksgiving is a celebration of mainstream culture. A time in which Jews and other minorities in America can be just like everyone else. It is a holiday that marks acceptance, a truly nonsectarian festival in which our only differences appear in the diversity of cranberry sauce recipes. It naturally follows that American Jews are eager to participate – and rightly so – in celebrating this national holiday of giving thanks along with their fellow countrymen.

Chanukkah, on the other hand, is a celebration of Jewish opposition to mainstream culture. It marks the time in which the Jewish minority fought against Hellenistic culture for the very survival of unique religion, nationality and community – the very opposite of acceptance.

So while we may feel comfortable – and even proud – of creating a fusion of Thanksgiving and Chanukah in which notions of giving thanks, bringing families and communities together, and eating as a bonding experience are celebrated, is that really the be all and end all? At the very least, we should take the opportunity to address the question: Is anything about being Jewish today countercultural to the society in which we live?

As someone who has worked with Jewish teenagers over many years, this question remains a fundamental part of my work. On the one hand, as educators we want young people to understand that their values, heritage and culture – and where their voice is part of that continuum of tradition – can be merged seamlessly into other components of their core identity, but at the same time we need them to understand that sometimes those values are strikingly countercultural within the America and western world of today.

My teacher Avraham Infeld points to the fact that America is very much an “I” community while Judaism is a “we” community, emphasizing minyan, community and family. On a recent panel discussion in Jerusalem, former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks reflected on this phenomenon by musing the choice of “i” branding in gadgets like the iPad, iPod and the ubiquitous iPhone – before jokingly remarking that even the word “Wii” is spelled with two i’s!

Even though we are different, we continue our furious attempts at reconciling the concept of Jewish peoplehood with liberal sensibilities. Yet Judaism embraced the Hebrew God who told Abraham to go out and teach humanity the dignity of difference. Judaism universalized particularity for the whole world and found a way to make being different acceptable to society at large. In this light, “Thanksgivukkah” just seems like the latest attempt to reverse the message of our forefathers. Rather than resting on our laurels with our bellies stuffed with turkey and latkes, it is incumbent upon us to at least ask the question of what it means to be Jewish within a broader culture in the 21st century.

We should mark this occasion by reflecting on the contrasting values of the pursuit of happiness and comfort versus the value of persistently striving to repair the world. We can choose to satisfy our consciences by simply giving thanks for the bounty that we have at our tables and in our lives – a concept that is both profoundly Jewish and profoundly American – or we can choose to go one step further and remind ourselves of all those who are not at our table and the work we still need to do to get them there so that they too can give thanks.

So this Thanksgivukkah which is it going to be? Do we remain in the tradition of the Maccabis and fight to defend our unique cultural, national and religious contributions to the world – including those that have yet to be fully realized – or do we to sit back and become assimilated into that wider culture which, after all, we have helped to shape?

Simon Klarfeld is Director of Young Judaea, the oldest Zionist youth movement in America.