Before moving to New York, I had never celebrated Thanksgiving. I vaguely remember a non-Jewish teacher at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto describing his family’s celebration of the holiday, but it sounded nearly as foreign as Christmas.
Perhaps we ignore Canadian Thanksgiving because it usually falls in the tumult of the chagim – often between Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Perhaps we blush over it because it falls on a Monday. Much like Victoria Day, Simcoe Day, Labour Day, and Family Day, it seems like another long weekend with little value beyond a day off. No matter the reason for missing out on a quarter century of Thanksgivings, I fell in love with my first American Thanksgiving.
First, it’s a holiday without the strictures of Yom Tov. Everyone is off work, schools are closed, and the city is quiet, but there is no need to prepare for weeks in advance (think building a sukkah, cleaning for Passover, etc.) Rather than spending the day in shul, it can be spent with family, volunteering or cozying up with a remote control and a football game. There are no restrictions on driving, electricity or what foods we can eat when and where.
But more than the practices of the day, it’s the theme of the holiday that resonates most with me: reflecting on the things for which we, personally, are thankful.
The Jewish calendar is filled with opportunities to give thanks. On Chaunkah we are thankful for the triumph of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the miracle of the oil; on Purim for God’s hidden hand in saving the Jews from Haman, and on Passover for the freedom of our ancestors from slavery. But these thanks are particularistic to Jews rather than universal, and express thanks for the wonders of history rather than our own lived experience.
In early America, rabbis wrote beautiful liturgies, marrying poetry with prayer, to be recited on days of Thanksgiving. In our New York synagogue, during morning services our rabbi led the congregation in Psalm 100, Mizmor L’Toda, A Song of Thanks, and encouraged us to take time to reflect on the things for which we were particularly thankful that year.
A lot has been made of this year’s rare convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving. In some ways, it’s exciting. Families who would not otherwise gather for Chanukah will light candles during their Thanksgiving dinner, potato latkes will be topped with cranberry sauce, and Stephen Colbert will lament that Thanksgiving is under attack by Chanukah.
Though his comments are satirical, Colbert may be on to something. While parallels may be drawn between the pilgrims’ quest for religious freedom and Maccabees’ fight against Hellenism, the two holidays should not be conflated. Our collective thanks for historic victories on Chanukah is not the same as the personal thanks for our lived experience on Thanksgiving. Each should be given its own time and own expression.
One of the things I will miss most about no longer living in the United States is Thanksgiving: the chag without the Yom Tov, the turkey with cranberry sauce, and the opportunity to reflect on the many things for which I am personally thankful.