It’s that time of year again. Jewish communities all over Canada watch mystified as American Jews obsess over a holiday in ways that rub against the Canadian Jewish sensibility. Canadian Jews look south and see an assimilationist impulse and an out of control commercialization – an acquisitive yearning that dwarfs inner yearnings.
Jewish spirituality, Canadians worry, doesn’t stand a chance in that climate.
No, I don’t mean that late December holiday and its Americanized competition with the Jewish festival that falls around the same time of year. I’m talking about Thanksgiving – or, as Canadians call it, American Thanksgiving. Come the fourth Thursday of November, Canadian Jews wonder what’s with their American co-religionists.
In this country, Thanksgiving never caught on in the Jewish community, perhaps because of the holiday’s proximity to the seemingly endless succession of Jewish holidays and their requisite lunches and dinners. How many more big meals can you cook? How many more can you survive? Perhaps most importantly, unlike American Jews, who view Thanksgiving as blessedly non-denominational and thus inclusive, Canadian Jews tend to think of Thanksgiving as a Christian holiday and exclude themselves. We have maybe a bit of consumerist envy of Black Friday, but we look forward to Boxing Day.
But American Jews fell in love early on with this holiday that – like America’s founding fathers – allows for religious sentiment in a context of religious freedom and secular civic space. Thanksgiving quickly became an emblem of the best of American ideals. Celebrating it was a way to feel at one with the country that had given Jews haven, to affirm belonging without giving up Jewishness.
Unlike religious rites, Thanksgiving has no ritual other than the turkey dinner – easily adapted to Jewish cooking and flexible enough to accommodate vegetarians. Jews from secular to Orthodox embraced the festival. It felt familiar – Jewish holidays emphasize special family meals. But in contrast to Jewish holidays, there is no Thanksgiving Kiddush to be recited, no synagogue obligations, no complications of when to cook and how to reheat.
And precisely that absence of liturgy and prescribed ritual allowed Jewish families to develop Thanksgiving traditions that reflect their own values, and to put a Jewish stamp on it. Like every other holiday, we turn it into memory, into narrative, into story.
Take, for example, Jewish American director Barry Levinson’s 1990 movie Avalon, focusing on five brothers who, beginning in the 1910s, immigrated from Russia and set down roots in Baltimore. The Thanksgiving scene in the film is deeply Jewish.
Without any religious ceremony, Levinson evokes the Passover seder. Echoing the Four Questions, someone asks, “I don’t eat turkey the rest of the year. Why do I have to eat it now?” The host, Sam Krichinsky, insists on telling “the story” to his extended family. Sensing the impatience of the younger generation and their eagerness to get to the food, his wife chides him: “How many times do we have to hear this story?” But he insists. “I’m telling them about when I came to America.” For him, it is a story of redemption from oppression, the consummate Jewish story. Without it, there can be no Thanksgiving feast.
So I have a modest proposal. American Thanksgiving tends to fall in the Hebrew month of Cheshvan. The days grow shorter and darker in a month so devoid of Jewish festivals that it is given the prefix “mar,” meaning bitter. Let us adopt – and adapt – American Thanksgiving, creating something of a hybrid festival to relieve the darkening tedium of this most bitter of Jewish months. Especially since the month begins with the impressive series of Holocaust Education Week programs commemorating our darkest past, why not end the month with reflections of gratitude?
As Levinson’s Krichinsky family discusses: “I don’t understand this holiday. I’ll never understand this holiday.”
“What’s not to understand?”
“Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving. We’re giving thanks to who?”
“You’re giving thanks for what you have.”