In shul, you hear the same jokes every year. Thanksgiving feels like a holiday, but it’s not Yom Tov. The table is set as if for Shabbat, only there are no hallot. Plus, you drove to get there.
Your brain sends conflicting signals. Shouldn’t we be adding ya’aleh v’yavo? Saying migdol yeshuot?
On Thanksgiving, Americans embrace the rituals of their civil religion with gusto. They may not like to eat turkey, but on this day they must. They gave up having Sunday dinner with family two generations ago, but on Thanksgiving, they clog highways and airports to get together. Most Jews join with enthusiasm. This is an American holiday, and we are proud Americans. When it comes to Jews, America is different. If you doubt this, look at Europe.
American haredim have always had a problem with Thanksgiving. Sixty years ago, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote a teshuva approving its celebration. (Note that somebody had to ask.) That was then, though. Nowadays in haredi circles, Thanksgiving is robustly ignored. My friend’s Brooklyn nephew attends a yeshiva ketana which is open on all legal holidays — Labor Day, Memorial Day, and, of course, Thanksgiving. Those are secular! The wall with the secular must not be breached! Outside that wall is the slippery slope to assimilation!
It is hard to get a good turkey in Israel, but many American olim do the best they can. Like immigrants everywhere, they have some nostalgia for the old home. Their children may be uncomfortable with Thanksgiving, though. It is so American. When they grow up, they will not look for turkeys.
In America this dynamic is reversed. North of New York City, there is an Israeli-style summer scout camp. Israeli expats send their kids there for a taste of home. The children of those kids won’t bother. Ethnicity fades in a generation or two.
One often meets Americans of Israeli origin. By now, the background of many is recognizable only by their first names, which they pronounce with an American accent. An example might be “Ayelet Fitzgerald.” This is a new chapter of a very old story.
A couple of years ago, the Jewish Agency caused a commotion with a series of ads directed at Israelis in America, aimed at encouraging them to return home. One of these ads more or less declared (with suitable images), “Come back to Israel before your kids celebrate Christmas.” American Jewish groups were outraged. Half their kids were intermarried. How dare the Israelis suggest that assimilation is a bad thing? The ads were taken down, with apologies.
Negotiating identity is complicated. It takes your whole life, and you never finish.
On Thanksgiving, American civil religion is not very demanding. All it takes is a turkey and a drive in a car. You get a day off from work. You don’t have to say hallel, and birkat hamazon is no longer than usual. But it feels good to be part of something that celebrates a country to which you are grateful and of which you are proud.
I like Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is very American. So am I.