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How to Put a Unique Jewish Stamp on Your American Thanksgiving

How to Put a Unique Jewish Stamp on Your American Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving meal

My father, of blessed memory, used to tell wonderful stories about the Thanksgiving celebrations of his childhood. My grandfather was one of seven brothers and sisters, most of whom were first generation Americans, only too eager to celebrate the rituals and customs of their new homeland. 

Thanksgiving, of course, featured American food, so when my father sat at the family’s holiday table as a child, there was plenty of turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce. But that was the secondo. The primo featured a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs, and only after it was eaten, could the rest of the meal begin.

Although our Canadian neighbors celebrate a version of Thanksgiving in October, in many ways, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday that was celebrated off-and-on and at different times during our nation’s early history. Most notably, George Washington declared a Thanksgiving in December 1777, following a victory over the British at Saratoga. It was Abraham Lincoln and our country’s Civil War, however, that cemented Thanksgiving firmly in its place as our nation’s consciousness. This holiday is our collective chance to step back from the business of life to give thanks for our blessings.

In American folklore, the origins of Thanksgiving are laid squarely at the feet of the Pilgrims, who held a feast to give thanks to God after surviving their first winter in the New World. Many scholars contend that the Pilgrims themselves were inspired by the Bible’s depiction of Sukkot—a harvest celebration during which our ancestors presented the offerings of their fields in appreciation of the bounty God had bestowed upon them in the land. When we sit down at our Thanksgiving table, there is a powerful symmetry: we are Jews, celebrating a truly American holiday that was inspired by our biblical ancestors.

No doubt you and your family have your own cherished holiday traditions. Many people I encounter share with me stories about their families’ customs, handed down from generation to generation.

My wife grew up in the Boston area, so our family’s Thanksgiving celebration invariably starts with coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts (founded in 1950 in Quincy, MA) and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It seems to me, though, that amidst watching the parade and football games, enjoying food prepared from family recipes, and dozing on the couch in a turkey stupor, we miss a tremendous opportunity to bring our Jewish values with us to the holiday table. After all, consider the themes Thanksgiving inspires: remembrance, appreciation of blessings, family, togetherness, food, and a celebration of freedom. 

Could these things be any more Jewish?!

This year, I want to encourage you to create a simple Thanksgiving seder as part of your celebration. It doesn’t have to be difficult or elaborate, but if done with intention and meaning, it has the potential to enrich the significance of Thanksgiving for you and all those around your table.

Here are a few ways to use the ideas and tropes of our faith to put a unique religious stamp on this most American of all days.

  1. Recite blessings over wine and bread as one way to acknowledge thanks to God for the bounty of the food you will eat. 
    Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, borei p'ri hagafen. Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. 
    Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, HaMotzi lechem min haaretz. Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.
     
  2. Offer other blessings. In recognition of being together with people we love, offer blessings from parent to child or friend to friend. Alternately, everyone can say together the words of Shehecheyanu, a special blessing for the first-time-in-the-Jewish-year (and for the first-time-ever) occasions in our lives.
     
  3. Retell your stories. We seldom find time to be grateful to the country that has given us so much. Take a moment to describe when, how, and why your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents came to this land of freedom and limitless possibility.

Of course, I never witnessed my father’s childhood Thanksgivings personally, but as I type these words, I can smell the food, feel the warmth, and taste the admixture of cultures in my soul. Bequeath the same to your family this Thanksgiving by encouraging them to write the next great chapter of our American Jewish lives.

Rabbi Anthony Fratello is a 1994 graduate of Pomona College and was ordained at the Cincinnati Campus of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 1999. Since 2000, he has been the rabbi of Temple Shaarei Shalom, a 560-family congregation in Boynton Beach, FL. He has served as a board and executive board member of numerous community agencies and is a highly sought and well-regarded speaker, teacher, and lecturer.

Rabbi Anthony Fratello
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