Thanksgiving and the Jews

Jews in America are especially lucky on Thanksgiving. Who else gets a choice of turkey or brisket, stuffing or kishkes?

As the quintessential American holiday, it somehow also feels more Jewish than any other.

Pilgrims as Jews
Is that a yarmulke he’s wearing? [“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth”, Jennie A. Brownscombe., 1914. Wikimedia Commons]
That may be because the very name “Jew” stems from the word for thanks (Judah). Or maybe because the first Thanksgiving might have had its roots in the Jewish fall harvest festival, Sukkot (which started on October 1st in 1621). But it also, obviously, resonates with Passover: big family meals, political debate, too much wine, and then a boisterous game of pinochle (at least that’s the way we celebrated). I think the stakes were a penny a point. Oh yeah, and celebrating gratitude for our miraculous liberation from slavery.

The original pilgrims fled religious persecution on the model of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Puritans believed the Anglican Church had introduced too many impure practices. They sought to return Christianity to its roots in the Jewish Bible. America in their narrative was the Promised Land. They consciously imitated the Jews by trying to establish both a Holy Land and an earthly utopia, free from tyranny. In the New World. They called it the @New Eden” In their worship, civil life, and ideology they were at least as attached to the “Old Testament” as the New one.

A standard Puritan greeting was, “You’re a good Jew!”

They also imbibed the message of the Hebrew Bible: the souls of Jews are enslaved to no earthly power.

As the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe said:

“All the people on the face of the earth must know this: That only our bodies have been sent into exile and the servitude of (foreign) rulers. But our souls have not been exiled or enslaved.

“We must say openly before all, that in all matters relating to our religion, the Torah, the commandments and the customs of Israel, we Jews have no one who can dictate to us, nor may any pressure be brought to bear against us.”

In the portion of the Bible called Toldot, (“Generations”), a powerful king of the Philistines (Palestinians), Avimelech, in what is now Gaza (sound familiar?) has been harassing Isaac and his small tribe by stopping up every well he digs. Nonetheless, Isaac continues to open the wells and thrive and grow wealthier. Avimelech eventually “comes to Isaac” to ask for a peace treaty.

The lesson is clear, the stuff of Hollywood: The small and brave who stick to their mission will have the huge and powerful bow to their superiority.

On this Thanksgiving, my personal thanks Is that the few and the just can still overcome the mighty and many, just as the movies promised me when I was a kid, and that my soul still yearns to be free and is in forced bondage to no physical, terrestrial thing.

Except maybe my wife’s transcendent brisket.