Of Pilgrims and Native Americans: The Enduring Power of Myth

As I walked down the hall of my synagogue towards my office earlier this week, I was distracted by the happy sounds of young children having themselves a very good time. I detoured into the room where our Nursery School had gathered for a “holiday feast,” and everyone- faculty and children- was in costume. There were Pilgrims, and Native Americans, and even a few turkeys thrown in for good measure. I couldn’t help but smile- such a sweet scene!

If you’ve grown up in America, chances are good that, at some point early on in your education, you were a part of exactly such a scene. Whether you attended a day school or a public school, Thanksgiving was the holiday people of all faiths- or no faith- could sign on to. Being thankful is a primary- if not “the” primary- religious impulse. Gratitude is a spiritual staple. It is the material of which the truly spiritual life is constructed. But it is also surely true that one need not be religiously grounded to feel gratitude. You don’t have to be of any particular faith to feel gratitude, or, for that matter, of any faith at all. Being grateful is a feeling equally available to us all.

Where it gets interesting is in how we access those feelings.

Traditional Jews are conditioned to access feelings of gratitude via a complicated matrix of ritual stimuli. We make blessings over everything from bread to thunder, acknowledging that the natural world in which we live is a gift to us from God. Reciting a blessing is a Pavlovian trigger for gratitude.

But this is not the only way…

American folkloric tradition- more specifically, the story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans breaking bread together to celebrate the blessings of the harvest- has provided us all with a framework for celebrating our blessings. The ubiquitous nature of the scene I witnessed earlier today in our synagogue Nursery School is proof positive of that, as are our common memories of doing exactly the same thing when we were that age. The mere act of gathering together to share a modern version of “plentiful harvest” cannot help but render us reflective on the subject of how very fortunate most of us are to be living the lives we live. Seeing the children and teachers dressed as Pilgrims and Native Americans is all it takes to trigger those uniquely American endorphins.

But it doesn’t take too long after we feel the “warm fuzzies” for the deconstructionists among us- as they will invariably do- to cast serious doubt on the historicity of the Thanksgiving story. Is it likely, or even possible, they ask, that the Pilgrims and Native Americans really shared a meal like that? Were the foods they were alleged to have eaten really available in America at that time? Would they have had those kind of cordial relations?

And, of course, the same people will tell us that George Washington never chopped down that cherry tree, or if he did, that he lied about it. Abe Lincoln may not have walked five miles each way to and from school, barefoot. And you know what? They’re probably right.

It is unlikely that the mythical Thanksgiving feast that we celebrate actually happened as we like to tell the story. And it’s possible that Washington never even came close to a cherry tree, and Lincoln lived across the street from his little school. But these people are missing the point of myth, and the vitally important role that it plays in the culture of a people.

Not unlike the aggadic stories of our own Midrashic literature, secular culture has its own literary and cultural traditions, passed down from one generation to another, that are treasured as cultural truths if not literal ones. These are the stories that give a culture its depth and its glory. And most importantly, it is these stories that make us fall in love with that culture, and want to claim it as our own.

Really… who cares if the Pilgrims and the Native Americans really knew what corn was, or if they had a feast together exactly as we have been trained to see it in our mind’s eye? The mythical component of the Thanksgiving story is much more important than the literal truth of any one or two of its details. These cultural traditions are aspirational. We long for a country where those of radically different background and circumstance might be able to humbly, and peacefully, sit down together to celebrate the blessings that makes their lives possible and pleasurable, despite the cultural divides between them.

There are, of course, broader implications to this discussion, the most significant of which is how to apply it to our reading of the Bible and all sacred text. But that is for another time. For now, my very best wishes to all for a happy and meaningful Thanksgiving. Celebrate your blessings, and no matter what triggers the feeling, be grateful…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.