The Thanksgiving controversy

For at least the last several years, there has been and remains a difference of opinion among orthodox Jews in America about whether we should celebrate Thanksgiving.  Some posit that as Jews, we give thanks multiple times a day in our prayers, and therefore, it is not important for us to commemorate this national holiday.  Others suggest that Thanksgiving is the most Jewish of American secular holidays and should certainly be celebrated.  This issue has been a point of contention for years.  

Most of us rush through our daily meals during the week and are not as mindful as we might be. Thanksgiving gives us yet another opportunity to slow down, pay attention and be grateful for our blessings.  Perhaps it might be noted as a “Jewish weekday Shabbat”.   As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Z”L wrote in ‘Giving Thanks’

Jewish prayer is an ongoing seminar in

gratitude… It takes focused attention to become

aware of how much we have to be grateful for.

That, in different ways, is the logic of prayer,

of making blessings, of Shabbat, and many

other elements of Jewish life.

Jewishness is thankfulness: not the most

obvious definition of Jewish identity, but by far

the most life-enhancing

Research consistently demonstrates that noticing, paying attention, and being actively grateful for our blessings contributes to our mental health and increases our happiness. In my work as a therapist servicing the Orthodox community, I have seen this to hold true for my clients. This practice of gratitude takes effort, as throughout our development as humans, we have been genetically influenced to focus on the bad or dangerous rather than the good for our own self-preservation.  

Traditional Thanksgiving in America is often pictured with Norman Rockwell images of a grateful, well-behaved family gathered around a table full of deliciously prepared food, frequently ready to say grace before the meal.  What could be more wholesome and American? As we see those images, most of us cannot help but think of our own families and compare the picturesque scenes in our imagination to the reality of our own families. Unfortunately, we compare and probably 98% of us do not fare well by these comparisons. 

All of us and our families are imperfect. None of us are unblemished. Despite the exceptional images we try to portray to our community, neighbors, and friends, we all struggle, we are cracked, and broken.  This constant comparison, keeps us feeling separate from others, hidden, and lonely. Thanksgiving gives us another opportunity to look for connection and commonality.  

When we focus on our blessings, look for opportunities to connect with others, find collective sources of gratitude and limit our comparisons to others, every day can be a Giving of Thanks, even if it is not Thanksgiving.

A Thanksgiving Prayer, by Rabbi Naomi Levy 

For the laugher of the children,

For my own life breath, 

For the abundance of the 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, 

Without fear,

In any language, 

In any faith, 

In this great country, 

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank you, G-d, for giving us all these. Amen 

Happy Thanksgiving.

About the Author
Marcia Kesner is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Mental Health Counselor with over 25 years of experience and has offices in Brooklyn, New York and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her practice focuses on treatment-resistant, self-harming, and self-sabotaging behaviors and addictive disorders, as well as healing from the after-effects of trauma and abuse. Marcia has recently been incorporating more of an emphasis on shame resilience, vulnerability, and self-compassion into her work.