Everyone knows why Thanksgiving is so dear to American Jews: Here is a holiday that all of America’s Jews can fully and actively enjoy. Spiritually, of course, giving thanks is praiseworthy in Judaism (“hakarat hatov,” acknowledging the good, is the traditional Jewish term for this), and the ecumenical element of the holiday provides Jews with a veritable invitation into Thanksgiving. But what sets Thanksgiving apart for Jews is that they can actively participate in the central event of the day — the Thanksgiving meal. All of the classic elements of this meal (turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato and pecan pie) may comfortably grace any Jewish person’s table, whatever that person’s observance of the kashrut laws.
Then there are the holiday parades and the football games – more Thanksgiving ingredients that any American Jew can enjoy. I remember with great fondness going to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with my Dad and sisters and brother. (Mom got the morning off to work on her doctorate in Comparative Literature.) How colorful and big and loud everything was: the huge cartoon-character balloons, the pageantry of the floats and the wonderful precision of the marching bands, led by the cute baton twirlers. By the end of the parade, we were exhilarated but often frozen too, and my Dad would take us to the Bellmor Cafeteria for hot chocolate and for these small, hollow, milk-chocolate turkeys, which we would save to eat at home but which would inevitably end up melting upon one of our radiators.
On Thanksgiving, I loved feeling integrally part of the much larger American experience. I loved doing what every other American was doing. We all yearn for this sense of belonging. Given the relative frailty and impermanence of human existence, we have a need to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, to feel part of a much larger group entity. As an American, I most felt this way on Thanksgiving.
I have not had a Thanksgiving in sixteen years. The closest I came was when our friends Mona and Yigal invited us over for a Shabbat turkey dinner a few years ago on the Friday night after the holiday. For someone like myself who loved Thanksgiving, the surprising thing is that I don’t miss it so much. I think that the reason for this is that now that I am in a land where my national identity never conflicts with my Jewishness (This is not to say that Judaism validates all of Israeli politics, but that there is no inherent tension with being Jewish and being Israeli), I often have the chance to experience the positive group feelings that in America I most associated with Thanksgiving. In other words, what I received from Thanksgiving in America, I receive here in the context of my observance of Shabbat, Jewish holidays and Israeli national celebrations and commemorations.
And let’s not forget: while for many American Jews Thanksgiving is the highlight of their American celebratory year, for most other Americans Thanksgiving is but a festive interlude in the march toward Christmas. Even as a child, I was aware of the price to be paid for the emotional high generated by Thanksgiving — I became more sensitive to my inability to participate in the post-Thanksgiving sweep toward Christmas. This “price” is epitomized for me by the grand finale of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the appearance of none other than Santa Claus. Yes, even at the Thanksgiving Day Parade, I was made to feel a little different from my fellow Americans who celebrate Christmas. This is why in Israel, where I have so many days for feeling unadulterated group spirit, I never really felt the loss of Thanksgiving. The baton twirlers, on the other hand, are another story. Happy Thanksgiving.