After Passover and Hanukkah, Thanksgiving is perhaps the holiday most observed by American Jews. It makes sense for a number of reasons, and not only because we Jews can’t pass up an excuse for a good meal.
Thanksgiving, as in giving thanks, is a very Jewish thing to do. According to tradition, Jews are to give thanks 100 times each day. We are to give thanks before we eat, for having food, and after we eat, for having been able to have food. Each morning the traditional liturgy includes thank-yous for such simple acts as standing up and having the strength to get through the day. One more Jewish link is found in our Scripture: The initial Thanksgiving feast was probably based upon our fall thanksgiving festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles)
But I think there is more to the American Jewish observance of Thanksgiving than our predilection to thankfulness. I think it has a lot to do specifically with our appreciation for and celebration of being part of life in America.
America has been good to the Jews. We have always lived here in relative safety. Our rights as a minority religion are protected by law and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Though we may have experienced anti-Semitism at times here, it is nothing compared to the anti-Semitism our grandparents or great-grandparents escaped from elsewhere.
Celebrating Thanksgiving, then, is part of affirming the American dream, in which peoples of all races, ethnicities and religions can have enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is what real democracy, a democracy based on checks and balances and protection for minorities, is really about. While such a dream is not completely realized for all Americans, the potential for such a realization does exist.
As Jews, we know that such values cannot be realized or retained unless they are transmitted. Perhaps that is why the American Jewish Committee recently created a lovely Haggadah (a service of sorts) for Thanksgiving that includes the stories of many diverse peoples and a litany of thankfulness that includes being thankful we can express, and change our opinions (another place that Jewish and American values intersect).
Easily downloadable, the AJC Thanksgiving Haggadah can add meaning to a meal that all too often focuses either on the Turkey and fixings or on family tensions, thus redeeming the one holiday all Americans can truly share.
–Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman