Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"
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How to survive your Thanksgiving dinner

The basics, like 'no name-calling and 'focus on the food,' help elevate the meal as part of a moral, blessed life

Given all the pressures of the past few months, it is not unlikely that some of the stress will spill on over to your Thanksgiving dinner. So here are my Ten Suggestions as to how to avoid Armageddon breaking out at your table.

1) Stay away from all controversial subjects. These days that includes even the weather, which has become a hot topic, both figuratively and literally. So if you avoid controversial topics like politics, religion, family, the weather and Aunt Sadie’s dry-as-the-Sahara sponge cake, that pretty much leaves us with meditating, chewing, whistling and various barnyard noises.

2) Stay away from any toxic words — in other words, anything that has been said on cable news over the past 24 months. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “One of the results of the rapid depersonalization of our age is a crisis of speech, profanation of language…. Language has been reduced to labels, talk has become double-talk. We are in the process of losing faith in the reality of words.”

3) Actually, silence is a good thing. A few moments of silence couldn’t hurt. Abraham Joshua Heschel again: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” So for a few moments, contemplate what it means to be a blessing. Don’t say anything, and ponder what it means to just be.

4) While you are contemplating, now is the time to cultivate mindfulness. Use this guide to bring a greater sense of mindfulness to all your Thanksgiving related activities. When you are food shopping, allow the food to call out to you. Turn off the radio while driving and be aware of your posture and your breathing. Notice the foliage and the changes in landscape, how as you climb in elevation, fall slowly slips into winter. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, take deep breaths!

5) Cast away labels. Uncle Joe shouldn’t be pegged as “Socialist Uncle Joe who voted for Jill Stein,” or “Uncle Archie, the lovable bigot.” Joe is just Joe and Archie is just Archie.


6) Think of what everyone around the table has in common, not how they differ. Somewhere in between the soup and the salad, slip into the conversation that you’ve recently had your DNA examined and it turns out the family is 0.1 percent Native American. That should get you clear through to the pumpkin pie. Remember to record for posterity the reaction of your Uncle Archie.

7) When you do speak, speak from your heart. The Hebrew word for family, mishpacha, comes from the word “to pour.” Originally the reference was to blood, and family blood runs deep, but this is a time not to shed blood, heaven forbid, but to strategically spill your guts. Try to aim for a deeper conversation than last year’s discussion on all things Kardashian. Remember that everyone is fearful these days — for all kinds of reasons. We are all looking for support and genuine caring.

8) Focus on the food (except for Aunt Sadie’s sponge cake). Noshing is sacred. There are some nice stories about food, like this Kabbalistic tale about the twelve hallot, one of my personal favorites. Download Hazon’s “Food for Thought” supplement and use some of its excellent material at your table. You will thank me.

9) Have the new Hamilton mix-tape handy, or just pass around the lyrics. If you are looking for a Jewish slant, play this mash up of the Schuyler sisters as Tevya’s daughters. If things start to get tense at the table, just increase the volume. Much better than escaping to the Lions v. Vikings in the other room.

10) And of course, count your blessings by actually reciting blessings, including the Motzi to start the meal and Birkat Hamazon to end it. Here’s a short form, and here’s the whole thing. Read about the 100 blessings Jews traditionally recite each day or look at 100 new blessings composed by my Confirmation Class back in 1993. Or, best of all, just look around the table at all the people who, despite themselves sometimes, have loved you through the course of your life. Before the Alzheimer’s kicked in, or the Jewish Guilt, or adolescence, or that one horrible, un-take-back-able thing that was said.

Look around and realize how lucky you are to be alive right now. These are interesting times that have chosen us. Love ’em or hate ’em, we are here. To echo “Hamilton’s” Eliza, “The fact that we’re alive is a miracle — just stay alive, that would be enough.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel begs to differ, opening a dialogue that we should pursue: He wrote the following in “No Religion is an Island,” (to complete the quote I excerpted in #3):

Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy. And yet being alive is no answer to the problems of living. To be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is: how to be and how not to be? The tendency to forget this vital question is the tragic disease of contemporary man, a disease that may prove fatal, that may end in disaster. To pray is to recollect passionately the perpetual urgency of this vital question.

Yes, with apologies to Eliza, to stay alive would not be enough. It’s not just about survival alone. It’s about living an exalted life, a holy life, a moral life, a good life. Now more than ever, we are thankful for the ability that each of us possesses to nudge the world ever so slightly in that direction. And we are thankful for the people who will join us on that quest.

And I am thankful for all of you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
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