Melanie Levav
Melanie Levav
Founding executive director, Shomer Collective

Talking Turkey & Giving Thanks: Reflections on Living

istock.com/SKYlove

According to most dictionary definitions, “talking turkey” means to speak frankly. This week, “talking turkey” probably conjures up thoughts of menu planning ahead of Thanksgiving. But what would it mean if we used Thanksgiving as an opportunity to engage in frank conversations with the important people in our lives, in addition to elaborate meals, service to others, and expressing gratitude? 

For some of us, the upcoming holidays of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah may be the first holidays on which we are gathering in person with family and friends after having marked the holidays in isolation earlier in the pandemic. For others, my immediate family included, we may still be celebrating in relative isolation, until our younger or high risk children are fully vaccinated. Whether gathering in person or by zoom, holidays, Thanksgiving in particular, can be the perfect time to have frank discussions with those closest to you about how you, and how they, want to live, knowing tomorrow is never guaranteed. 

On Thanksgiving, people of all faiths and backgrounds often start their festive meal with expressions of gratitude, recognizing the blessings in their lives since last Thanksgiving. On Jewish holidays and on Shabbat, we start the celebratory meal with several specific blessings — over candles, children, wine, and bread. On the first night of a Jewish holiday, we add the blessing “shehechiyanu,” giving thanks for having lived to see this day. Indeed, we will recite this blessing at the end of the Thanksgiving weekend, on the first night of Hanukkah, Sunday evening November 28. 

In reciting shehechiyanu at the start of a holiday, we have an opportunity to reflect on the blessing of being alive at regular intervals. So, too, with Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving as observed today is often about service to others, and recognizing our own good fortune, and expressing gratitude for what we have. Speaking with those closest to us about how we want to live as we near the end of life, recognizing that tomorrow is never guaranteed, is a form of service, perhaps even sacred service. Committing to doing this service annually on Thanksgiving, a secular holiday, can become a family tradition, encouraging intergenerational conversations. 

The word for turkey in Hebrew is tarnegol hodu, or “Indian chicken.” In addition to being the Hebrew name for India, the word hodu also means thanks. What better opportunity than Thanksgiving to give thanks for life by recognizing that it is finite. Talking about end of life is an opportunity to talk about life.

As we head into the gift giving season, give the important people in your life the gift of speaking about death openly, regularly, and with a brave heart, and you might just find yourself receiving the gift of deeper connections and greater meaning in your own life. 

About the Author
Rabbi Melanie Levav is the founding Executive Director of the Shomer Collective, powered by Natan, a new initiative designed to empower individuals, families, and institutions to improve end-of-life experiences, inspired by Jewish wisdom. Melanie is a board-certified chaplain, a licensed social worker, and a rabbi with more than two decades of leadership experience in the American Jewish community.
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