Beyond Thanksgivukkah: A Deeper Celebration of Our Heritage as American Jews

November 22, 2013Rabbi Howard A. Berman

There has been a great deal of interest surrounding the unusual confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah this year. The hype of the "Thanksgivukkah" craze, with humorous ideas for joint holiday celebrations, including menorahs shaped like turkeys ("menurkeys") and pumpkin latkes, are certainly amusing and witty. However, the intersection of the Thanksgiving and Hanukkah traditions offer far more profound and inspiring links that can add deep meaning to our observance of both beloved festivals.

It has been observed that the common timing of these two holidays underscores the blending of our American and Jewish identities. This has far deeper substance than many people realize. The story of this shared heritage indeed begins with the historical background to the Thanksgiving Story. While the first Jewish settlers in America did not arrive until 1654, two decades after the landing of the Mayflower, the Jewish influence on the Pilgrims, while indirect, was nevertheless profound. In the absence of Jews as objects of bigotry and persecution in England in the early 17th century – the ancient medieval English Jewish community having been driven from the British Isles during the turmoil and fanaticism of the Crusades in 1290 - the small Pilgrim sect filled the void nicely. Because of their distinctive faith and their rejection of the authority of the Bishops, which was considered heresy by the Established Church and treason by the Crown, these "Separatists" were relentlessly persecuted, imprisoned and tortured-enduring the same kind of torments that Jews had always been subject to. When, in 1608, they fled to Holland, long a haven for religious dissenters and minorities, the Pilgrim exiles had their first personal contacts with Jews, and even held worship services in an Amsterdam synagogue before establishing their own church in Leyden. One of their ministers, the Scripture scholar Henry Ainsworth, studied Jewish biblical interpretation with the leading Dutch rabbis. Significantly, like many of the more radical Protestant Reformers, the Pilgrims were deeply grounded in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. As they studied the Scriptures, they came to see themselves as a "New Israel" – not in the traditional context of Christianity supplanting of the covenant, but rather as a personal sense of connection with Jewish history. They saw, in their own oppression and marginalization, deep parallels with the Jewish experience. They believed that they, too, were slaves, fleeing Pharaoh – King James I – crossing the Red Sea of the Atlantic in a pilgrimage toward the Promised Land of the New World. So great an emphasis was placed on the Hebrew Scriptures that the greatest Pilgrim leaders, Elder William Brewster and Governor William Bradford, became devoted students of the Hebrew language so that they could read the Bible in its original text. Attempting to reclaim a simple, "pure" form of Christianity as close as possible to the early Church of Jesus' time, the Pilgrims sought a model in the traditions of Jewish observance and worship. Most of the legal codes of the Plymouth Colony, as well as its early form of democratic government, were directly based on legislation from the Five Books of Moses, as were many of the Pilgrim's religious practices. For example, their meticulous observance of Sunday rest and worship was patterned directly on the traditional concept and observance of Shabbat. They used the term "Meeting House," a direct translation of the Hebrew word for synagogue, Bet Knesset, rather than the term 'church.' And, knowing that they observed no holiday not specifically rooted in the Biblical text, it is clear that the inspiration for that first Thanksgiving celebration, in the fall of 1621, was the harvest festival of Sukkot – as ordained in the Torah, in the Book of Leviticus. To this day, any visitor to Plymouth, Massachusetts, can visit not only the famed Rock of the legendary landing, but also Governor Bradford's grave on Burial Hill, with its Hebrew inscription of his personal motto: Adonai Ezer Chayai, "The Lord is the help of my life."

If this link to the Pilgrims provides the Jewish tie to Thanksgiving, we also can point to a direct Hanukkah connection this year. December 2 will mark the exact 250th anniversary of the dedication of the famed Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, on the first day of Hanukkah 1763, to commemorate the Maccabees' rededication of the Temple. This oldest Jewish house of worship in the United States had its own roots in the settlement of the first Jews in New England in 1658, a mere 38 years after the arrival of the Pilgrims in nearby Plymouth. The beautiful sanctuary, a national shrine to religious freedom, remains a striking symbol of our shared American Jewish heritage. It was to this congregation that George Washington wrote his famous 1790 letter, with its immortal declaration that the government of the new United States was committed to moving far beyond mere tolerance in its recognition of the natural rights of every citizen, and would "give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution, no assistance." And in a full-circle link back to the Pilgrims, the painting of the Hebrew text of the Ten Commandments over the Ark in the Touro Synagogue was the work of the local artist Benjamin Howland, a direct descendant of one of the original Mayflower Pilgrim families.

Beyond the lighthearted parodies and recipes of "Thanksgivukkah," we can approach this unique combined holiday with great pride and gratitude for the rich heritage we share as American Jews. As we kindle the lights of Hanukkah around our Thanksgiving tables this year, we can indeed offer our heartfelt blessings as we recall 'the wondrous things wrought for our people in days of old at this season...'

Rabbi Howard A. Berman is the Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. Rabbi Berman is the rabbi of Central Reform Temple of Boston, as well as the Rabbi Emeritus of Chicago Sinai Congregation.

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