November was an entertaining time in the U.S. last year. People got a kick out of finding ways to combine the words, dishes, and observances of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, in recognition of the calendrical rarity that had the first day of Chanukah coincide with Thanksgiving.
But I’m happy to be back to normal. Menurkeys are all fine and good, especially when invented by creative kids and marketed by their creative parents. But I’d rather have my Thanksgiving, and my Chanukah, as distinct entities.
Not that I’ve ever been wedded to Thanksgiving traditions. It is often a useful opportunity to see friends and relatives, since everyone has off. (Well, except those who don’t, which this year includes my husband.) And I don’t mind eating turkey, though I have no intention of ever cooking one myself. But I don’t need a particular menu.
What I have realized, more and more since having children and trying to help them navigate life – and the Jewish and secular calendars that guide our lives – is that Thanksgiving can have huge value regardless of what one actually does on the day.
I like being able to tell my kids that Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday, or a non-Jewish one. I like being able to point out to them that gratitude is a value we can all share and enjoy.
And particularly in this country, at this time of year – and with the “Holiday (a.k.a. Christmas) Season” beginning ever earlier – I appreciate it for myself as well as for my kids.
It can get a little frustrating, being Jewish in America in the fall, inundated with other people’s religious observances. Every time someone wishes me a good religious-holiday-that’s-not-mine, I have to decide whether to just smile and ignore the assumptions, or go with a “Thank you, but actually, I’m Jewish; we don’t celebrate Christmas.”
And it bothers me as a parent, watching my children grow increasingly aware of the surrounding holiday hype and wondering how they will feel as they grow increasingly aware of their lack of connection to it all.
Not so with Thanksgiving. True, there are plenty of Jews who think Thanksgiving is fundamentally non-Jewish, and to be avoided. But I’m not one of them.
One of the reasons I was intrigued by the “Thanksgivukkah” excitement last year is that it reminded me of another time I had found myself considering the two holidays side by side. Years ago, I had the privilege to design a study session for a Jewish youth group, on the topic of Jews adopting non-Jewish practices. The session was part of a fall convention, which fell out in the neighborhood of both Thanksgiving and Chanukah, and it related to the two holidays in interesting ways: Thanksgiving as a holiday started by non-Jews, which led to halachic discussions as to whether or not it was acceptable for Jews to adopt; and Chanukah as one which commemorates Jewish resistance to non-Jewish influences.
Do we adopt the American, non-Jewish, practice of expressing gratitude specifically on the last Thursday of November? Or do we focus on strengthening our own Jewish identities, celebrating our fortitude in resisting the appeal of surrounding cultures?
I’d like to think we can, and should, do exactly both.
There is a fascinating passage in the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 13, 6) that highlights this point.
“A certain non-Jew asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha, ‘You have holidays, and we have holidays. At a time when you are rejoicing, we are not rejoicing; and at a time when we are rejoicing, you are not rejoicing. When do we and you rejoice?’ [He answered,] ‘When the rains fall.’”
I love this story. It highlights value in our similarities as well as in our differences. It embraces the fact that Jews and non-Jews have distinct celebrations, but also actively seeks out a celebration we can all share.
I am also struck by the answer: we can all rejoice when the rains fall. What we share is our basic humanity; the necessities of human life we require, and our human reactions to the presence or lack of those necessities.
Conversations about weather get unfairly disparaged, I think. Weather (and maybe I’m biased here by having lived in Cleveland for several years, with the “lake effect” I will never understand, where the weather actually makes for a fascinating topic of conversation) is a highly interesting, and universally relevant, topic of conversation. Kind of like parenting. I can strike up a conversation about weather with any stranger in a check-out line or coffee shop, or about the behavior of my children or theirs, and we find that we share something regardless of our religious or other differences.
We are all fundamentally human. We all need rain so we have food, we are all affected by strange bursts of snow/wind/sun/hail, and we all have a vested interest in the behavior of children in our vicinity, whether our own or those of the person in line with us at the supermarket.
And we all have things to be thankful for. We might direct our gratitude to different deities, or none at all, but we can all feel it.
Yes, my children, there IS a Thanksgiving. And it has nothing at all to do with Chanukah. On Chanukah, we will rejoice and they will not. On Christmas, they will rejoice and we will not. But on Thanksgiving, we can all rejoice at once – over the rains we all need, and whatever weather we enjoy, and the families we (mostly) love, and everything else each of us has to be grateful for.