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What Do Jewish History and Thanksgiving Have in Common?

What Do Jewish History and Thanksgiving Have in Common?

Although Thanksgiving is loosely associated with the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, there is no documentation that the Pilgrims saw themselves as wanderers in the desert or followed the ceremonial commandments in the Hebrew Bible, according to Diana Muir Applebaum, an historian and author of Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History,

On the other hand, Jonathan Sarna, chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History suggests that the Pilgrims’ understanding of gratitude to God for the bounty of the earth was cause for prayer and giving thanks. In the hard times of 17th-century New England, holiday celebrations were important for their ability to lift people’s spirits. Although Thanksgiving was minhag (custom) in New England from these earliest days, it was not declared an official holiday until President Lincoln’s decree in 1863. It wasn’t until 1941 that Congress established the last Thursday in November as the fixed date for Thanksgiving.

Fall’s bounty certainly would affect the ingredients used in celebrations of both Sukkot and Thanksgiving. Look closely at some traditional side dishes and you will see stories of our Jewish culinary heritage.

Let’s start with cranberry relish. Do you like yours with orange in it, such as zest or sections? The use of oranges spread from the Mediterranean to Europe and beyond because of the need for a perfect etrog (citron) for Sukkot. Because the etrog needed to be unblemished and have its pitam (remnant of the part of the flower known as the stigma) intact to be kosher for ceremonial use, merchants had to travel down to Italy and Cyprus to transport the etrogim (plural of etrog) by hand to the communities in Europe. While they were purchasing etrogim, Jewish merchants were introduced to oranges, lemons, and limes grown only in warmer climates. These merchants became so associated with the orange industry in Europe that the last orange pushcart owner in London, who ceased selling in the early 1900s, was a Jew.

Pumpkin, another fall favorite, is decidedly American, having been cultivated for thousands of years in the New World before being discovered by Spanish explorers, who introduced it to the Puritans. After these explorers brought the new fruit home in the early1500s, it was Sephardic Jews in Spain and Italy who first sold pumpkins in Europe. According to the late Gil Marks, food writer and historian, pumpkin was often served on Rosh HaShanah because the Arabic word for pumpkin is qara, which sounds like the Hebrew word kara, which means “called out,” as in our good deeds will be called out. The pumpkin’s color also represented prosperity and its multitude of seeds, fertility.

When making bread stuffing, consider that millennia ago Jewish cooks put a rudimentary mix of flour, water, and seasonings into a ceramic kugeltopf, translated as ball (of dough) jar, before placing it in the center of a large pot of cholent. Twelve to 15 hours of slow cooking in the communal ovens created a stew along with a stewed bread pudding for our ancestors to enjoy on Shabbat.

No, not everything is Jewish and I can’t connect cranberries to our ancestors (unless Ocean Spray originally was a Jewish firm!), but giving thanks for the gifts of the earth is an important part of our tradition as Jews, and preparing more food than any one family can possibly eat is a minhag from which no one wants to break!

Enjoy your holiday and eat in good health!

Visit my website,, for terrific Thanksgiving recipes for Apple Pear Cranberry Relish, Sweet Potato Pumpkin Cazuela, Fruit and Sun-Dried Tomato Bread Stuffing, and more.

Tina Wasserman is the author of Entrée to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora and Entrée to Judaism for Families and is a visiting lecturer and scholar-in-residence throughout the country. She serves on the boards of ARZA and URJ Camp Newman, and is a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX. Her recipes can be found at Cooking and More and throughout, where she serves as food editor. Tina can be reached for congregational and organizational events through her website.

Tina Wasserman
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