Thanksgiving is one of those holidays Americans just don’t want to let go of. What do I mean? Despite the fact that it’s pretty inaccurately rooted in history, it’s probably the most widely celebrated American holiday. Flights are booked, schools are closed, a bird is pardoned by the President, and for a lot of families, it’s the only time of year that everyone gathers together around the dinner table, perhaps second only to Christmas.
The tie to Thanksgiving is so strong that a lot of American ex-pats living in Israel are participating in Thanksgiving dinners, or Thanksgiving-themed Shabbat dinners the following evening. From a culinary perspective, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be such a big deal to observant Jews. One of the lifestyle adjustments that stood out for me when becoming observant was consuming (and preparing) large meals each Shabbat. Thanksgiving ain’t no thang for the Jewish homemaker, who whips together a lavish meal for 10 the day of. Headlines about preparing for a Thanksgiving meal one month in advance seem laughable.
So what is it about Thanksgiving that speaks American Jews? The football? The shopping the day after?
Well, not so surprisingly there is disagreement about what Thanksgiving means and what Jewish participation in the American holiday should look like. A terrific article by Rabbi Michael Broyde on My Jewish Learning discusses the differing halachic opinions on Thanksgiving celebration. Poskim have been concerned about whether it is appropriate to distinguish between “secular society,” “Gentile society,” and “idol-worshiping society” in modern American culture. In short, the three main opinions are:
- Thanksgiving is not a Gentile holiday, yet “celebration” should be limited.
- Any form of involvement in Thanksgiving is prohibited, as it is a Gentile holiday.
- Thanksgiving is a purely secular holiday, and celebration can take any (halachic) form appropriate for secular observance.
Rabbi Broyde concludes that as long as Thanksgiving is celebrated in a completely secular way, it is permissible and even advisable to celebrate: “For reasons related to citizenship and the gratitude we feel towards the United States government, I would even suggest that such conduct is wise and proper.”
While the U.S. Government has not been perfect in its treatment toward Jews, there is a reason why it hosts the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. The United States of America provided unprecedented opportunities for oppressed Jews around the world to practice their religion (or unfortunately to leave it behind) as they wished, and to climb the economic ladder. Nonetheless, Jews have faced discrimination in the U.S., and the government did not act soon enough to take action when news about the concentration camps and the Holocaust reached its shores. Still, I think Jewish-American success is something to be celebrated and to be thankful for. I have strong doubts that if my grandparents and great-grandparents did not flee economic devastation and persecution in Europe to seek refuge in my native country, that I would be here today.
Being thankful is an intrinsic part of what it means to be Jewish. The English word, “Jew” is a translation of the word “Yehudi”, יהודי in Hebrew, which literally means “one who gives thanks.” Halachically, the first sentence one should say each morning upon waking begins: “Modeh ani…”, מודה אני… which means “I am grateful”. It is a statement of gratitude to God for the ability to wake and continue our lives into a new day.
I won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving this year. For starters, today is a work day and I don’t feel in the spirit, as the day is not recognized much around me. I suppose that in this way I feel more Israeli than American. With Shabbat the following day, Shabbat stands out more in my calendar. Secondly, I’m married to a Canadian, who doesn’t have the tradition of spending the last Thursday in November feasting. But my thoughts are with the rest of my family, who will be gathered around the table in America without me. I’m very thankful for them and all that they, and the U.S.A., have given me.
Now that I’ve established that it’s kosher to celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S. (and probably also in Israel), here comes another question. Should the meal in the U.S. end with “Next year in Jerusalem”?