Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday, celebrating the freedom and pluralism of our nation, the very attributes that have enabled us to thrive. Like the early pilgrims, Jews arrived on the shores of their new land seeking religious liberty and the promise of a new life, free from persecution.
The Thanksgiving feast itself shows the early influence of Jewish tradition in the shaping of American culture. Though the origins are not widely taught, historians believe that when the religious pilgrims were seeking a way to express their thanks for their survival and for the bountiful harvest, they looked to the Bible and found the festival of Sukkot as the perfect model.
Yet even as we bask in the universal warmth of the Thanksgiving season, our distinctiveness flickers with the approach of Chanukah. Indeed, one could argue that the Festival of Lights, though minor in our catalogue of holidays, is the time of year when we feel most alienated from the dominant Christian culture.
The December dilemma is now often defined by the quandary faced by interfaith families over how to celebrate two traditions. But for generations past, the term alluded to the inherent tensions faced by Jewish families striving to preserve their winter celebration as a secondary, albeit special, time without trying to compete with Christmas.
Above all, Chanukah marks our historic triumph of tradition over assimilation. It reminds us of the battles our ancestors fought to retain the right to practice Judaism when the Assyrian-Greeks sought to quash Jewish observance. And it recalls the rededication of the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, when a small cruse of oil lasted a miraculous eight days.
The Maccabean battle to preserve Jewish tradition, even as many Jews were enticed by Hellenistic culture, is just one of many periods in our history when our religious observance clashed with the surrounding culture. Today, there is no ruthless king forcing us to disavow our heritage. The threat is much more insidious, but just as real. It comes from the same American society that we extol as our bastion of freedom. It's the choice we have for the first time in our history to be Jewish or not.
As Thanksgiving reaffirms our proud and rightful place in the fabric of American society, Chanukah reminds us that we also stand apart. Like our ancestors, we, too, have to struggle — psychologically and practically — to cling fast to our history and our traditions that have sustained us through the generations.
With this year's proximity of the two holidays, let's reaffirm what it means to be both American and Jewish. One without the other weakens both. Now more than ever, we need to keep the flames burning brightly. Happy Holidays!