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Much to Be Thankful For This Turkey Day

November 20, 2008 By:
Mara Sokolsky, JE Feature
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All Hallow's Eve has come and gone. Jewish children, just like others, donned costumes and gorged themselves on sweets. Yet, since Halloween's goblins come from an old Celtic tradition, I can see why some frum families look askance at something that was originally concerned with the rising of the dead.

Thanksgiving, though, is another matter.

There's a theory among some historians that the Pilgrims modeled Thanksgiving after Sukkot. Both holidays are in the fall and are concerned with being grateful for our bounty.

There's a charming picture book by Elsa Okon Rael called Rivka's First Thanksgiving. It takes place in the days when the New York's Lower East Side was a thriving community. Rivka has just learned about the holiday at school, and is anxious to explain it to her immigrant Mama and Bubbeh. Her mother is skeptical: "It sounds to me as though this is a party for Gentiles," Mama said. "It's not for us."

Bubbeh is concerned and takes Rivka to see the esteemed Rabbi Yoshe Preminger. Rabbi Preminger is a small, bearded man surrounded by books. He listens patiently to Rivka's plea that, unlike Europe, America has been a haven for the Jews. It is right, therefore, that we partake of this holiday, which gives thanks for being in America.

I thought of Rivka recently when my husband and I visited our younger daughter at college. Looking at campuses over the decades gives one a window onto Jewish acceptance.

A Simple Game of Catch?
When my father went to college, there was a 2 percent Jewish quota at many top schools. By the time I went, I had plenty of Jewish compatriots, though we didn't do very much publicly.

My daughter attends a large, Southern, state university. It was an unseasonably warm Shabbat afternoon in November that we strolled across the green, rolling campus. A group of students was playing a game of catch. They yelled hello to my daughter, and she ran over to schmooze, then introduced her parents. A perfectly normal scenario, except that the guys playing ball were wearing kippot.

Was this a natural occurrence: young men in yarmulkes, playing freely on a Southern campus? Was there no need to scan the horizon for danger?

Anti-Jewish sentiment is hardly extinguished. But to see those boys wearing their religiosity so comfortably was one indicator of how Jews are accepted in this country,

Rabbi Preminger, in the story, ponders Rivka's plea, but decides that Thanksgiving is not a celebration for Jews. Rivka then writes him a strong letter comparing the Pilgrims and the Jews, who both came to America to get away from persecution. The rabbi calls her back to speak in front of a beit din/court of rabbis. Nervously, she reiterates her belief that Thanksgiving is about giving praise to God for being in this safe, bounteous land.

Two weeks later, Rivka's family has the first Thanksgiving on Hester Street, with the Rabbi Yoshe Preminger sitting at the head of the table!

Of course, the story of Thanksgiving is not treasured by all. The Native Americans who shared that first turkey dinner with the Pilgrims had no way of knowing then that their land, and way of life, would be reduced almost beyond recognition.

Rivka's point, however, of finding a safe harbor on American shores is well taken.

On November 24, my family members will descend upon my mother in the Bronx. We'll feast until we can't even look at another piece of pumpkin pie.

Having too much to eat is a luxury I hope I don't take for granted in this affluent country. Yet, for that bounty, and for the relative freedom to be as Jewish as you wish here, I'm already planning to have a lot to be thankful for.

Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. Comments? E-mail her at: sokolskaya@cox.net.


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