The AJC Thanksgiving Reader Rabbi Grossman mentions is in many ways rooted in the thought of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan claimed that Jews in America lived in two civilizations–one American and one Jewish, and that each informed the other.
As early as 1945, Kaplan’s Reconstructionist prayerbook contained a special service for Thanksgiving, including readings to be conducted in synagogue. The Faith of America, published in 1951, was a collection of readings and songs Kaplan put together to mark civic holidays from Flag Day to Election Day to, of course, Thanksgiving. Kaplan’s belief was that American values such as democracy and egalitarianism could teach us how to be better Jews, and Jewish values such as commitment to community and finding the sacred in the everyday could teach us how to be better Americans.
In our own time, the Jewish story has great potential to revitalize Thanksgiving–both the ancient narrative of the Israelites leaving Egyptian oppression to be free in a new land, and the more recent immigrant experience of seeking safe harbor in America from the hatred and violence of Eastern Europe. The Jewish experience, fundamentally, is an immigrant experience–the English word “Hebrews” comes from the Hebrew root meaning “cross over,” and we are constantly reminded to love the stranger for we know what it was to have been strangers in Egypt.
In our own day, when Thanksgiving is in danger of being either a day of turkey and football on the one hand, or of thanks for one’s own personal comfort and well-being on the other, Judaism gives us the possibility of restoring Thanksgiving’s core message: an appreciation of this great country and the promise it can hold out for those so sorely in need of hope. It was the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus who penned the famous words at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Thanksgiving calls us to remember that America must be a beacon of hope and justice to the world, and the Jewish story can help breathe life back into a holiday that threatens to become just another paean to excess and indulgence.