Does your family have a ‘don’t-miss it’ holiday? Ours does. It’s Thanksgiving, and we look forward to it all year.
Our home has been ‘holiday central’ for over 40 years. Rosh Hashanah dinners and Passover seders, Sukkah parties and Hanuka parties, brunch on Mother’s Day, barbecue on Fathers Day, falafel on Yom HaAtzmaut, and countless Shabbat dinners. But it’s Thanksgiving – an American holiday rooted in the religious value of gratitude, celebrated with family, friends, and food – that grew to be most beloved. Maybe the seed was planted ages ago when my parents chose Thanksgiving Day in 1955 for their wedding day. Decades later, we chose Thanksgiving weekend for our youngest child’s bar mitzvah, a three-day celebration that seamlessly blended our Jewish and American identities.
As our kids married and began juggling holidays between two families, we had a singular request: Divide up the Jewish and secular holidays however you wish. Be wherever you need to be. Just be home for one holiday.
Be home for Thanksgiving.
Those newlywed couples gladly complied. They loved our Thanksgiving celebration as much as we did. They showed up for their dad’s legendary turkey and dressing (when Israeli family visit, even in the summer, it’s the dish they ask for first). They showed up to see their aunts, uncles, and cousins arrayed around the table. They got caught up with dear friends who became part of our holiday scene years ago. Each year the size of the crowd grew, and with it, my own joy. Thanksgiving was a chance to rewrite the lonely holidays of my childhood. My dad was an over-the-road trucker and usually gone on Thanksgiving, missing both the holiday and my parents’ wedding anniversary. My mom and brothers and I were a table of four. Now, I found happiness in our overflowing table.
Once grandchildren came, the holiday grew from a long weekend to a full week of family fun. Our out-of-town kids began rolling up the driveway on Sunday or Monday before Thanksgiving. New traditions emerged. ‘Erev Thanksgiving’ dinner at a restaurant followed by game night. A day-after-Thanksgiving fun activity (often bowling). Shabbat dinner including family and friends who weren’t with us the day before. In between, our grandchildren savored a running play date; their parents chatted for hours on end. My husband and I surveyed the scene with near inexpressible gratitude.
By Sunday, the out-of-town kids would hit the road, the local kids headed home, and our house slowly settled back on its foundation.
None of that is possible this year. Covid is exploding, especially in the upper Midwest. Our out-of-town kids will not be traveling here. Indoor gatherings are ill-advised, so even our local kids and grandkids will not be coming over. Not even on Thanksgiving Day.
How, or even whether, to celebrate Thanksgiving is a question impacting families all over America.
A few weeks ago, after our record-breaking October snow melted and an unseasonably warm week was forecast, I said to my husband, “what a shame Thanksgiving is not this week. Because at least then we could celebrate outdoors with the local kids and grandkids. By the time the holiday arrives it will be too cold to be outside.”
And exactly like you see in cartoons – when a lightbulb goes off over someone’s head – we both said at once: WHY NOT? Why not have an early Thanksgiving this Sunday? Better an early Thanksgiving than none at all.
Our local kids enthusiastically agreed. My husband and I got busy rounding up the turkeys and ingredients to make all their holiday favorites. We set up separate tables in the back yard for each family and spaced them far apart. We agreed that everyone would wear masks except when eating. We called Thanksgiving dinner for 3 pm, knowing it would be dark by 5.
Our early Thanksgiving was both wonderful and strange. We ate our traditional foods and recited our traditional prayer of gratitude, but social distancing, masks, and eating in the backyard on a ‘June in November’ day made it all surreal. It was like looking into a funhouse mirror, where familiar images are distorted into something recognizable, but odd. And, we were keenly aware of all the family who were missing.
If I’d dreamed this kind of Thanksgiving a year ago, I’d have woken up shaken.
Nonetheless, we laughed at the strangeness and savored every bite of turkey and every socially-distanced moment together. We were, indeed, thankful.
The actual Thanksgiving is a few days away. Our house is quiet.
Last year, my brother and I managed a real feat; we gathered all our children and grandchildren together for Thanksgiving, every last one. That lonely childhood table for four had grown to over thirty! Our dear friends rounded out the celebration.
This year? It will be a table for two, just my husband and me. If happiness is an overflowing table, then what is this year’s holiday? Well, if I’ve learned nothing else during these nine months of pandemic, I’ve learned that my definition of happiness must stretch to encompass this truth: Happiness is gratefully making the most of what’s possible.
What’s possible is the Thanksgiving we had outdoors, a few weeks ago. Without our out-of-town kids and grandkids, extended family, and friends, the celebration fell far short of ideal. It was, simply, the best we could do under these unprecedented circumstances. We still took pictures. I hope when we look back on this Thanksgiving we will retain its memories…and its lesson.
I’ll close with the prayer I read every Thanksgiving. At our celebration a few weeks ago, each line pierced my heart with fresh meaning. The last few lines have always moved me the most. This year, after all our country has suffered, my throat closed around those final lines, and I could barely say them aloud.
May this prayer add meaning to your holiday. And may you find happiness in the Thanksgiving that’s possible.
A Thanksgiving Prayer
By Rabbi Naomi Levy
For the laughter of the children,
For my own life breath,
For the abundance of food on this table,
For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,
For the roof over our heads,
The clothes on our backs,
For our health,
And our wealth of blessings,
For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,
For the freedom to pray these words
In any language,
In any faith,
In this great country,
Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.
Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen.
Reprinted with permission of Rabbi Naomi Levy from her book Talking to God.