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The Harmonic Convergence of Two Holidays

November 20, 2013 By:
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On Nov. 28, you can sit down with your family at a table festooned with “Happy Thanksgivukkah” placemats to eat a turlatken (a turkey stuffed with latkes or slow-roasted with a latke crust), potato latkes with cranberry chutney and a Thanksgivuk­kah tzimmes pie.

Afterwards, you can observe the second night of Chanukah by using your menurkey, the turkey menorah that has become the breakout symbol of the season. While the kids play with a dreidel featuring a turkey in place of a gimel (“gobble” — get it?), you can give your loved ones a T-shirt with an image of a menurkey perched on a guitar fret, a la the iconic Woodstock pos­ter — enveloped in Thanksgivukkah wrapping paper.

The sheer singularity of Thanksgiving occurring during Chanu­kah — this is the first time it has happened since 1888, and it won’t happen again, according to some estimates, for more than 70,000 years — has made the hybrid holiday a pop culture hit.

It’s easy to downplay or even roll our eyes over the hype and commercialization surrounding the holiday confluence, but is that the right response? The convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving has indeed led to a new explosion of seasonal entrepreneurship, but in a world where multiple Kimye stories (about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West) are posted online daily, what is so bad about calling attention to two of our most family- and community-oriented holidays?

Nothing, according to Josh Perelman, the chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections at the National Museum of American Jewish History. “I think this convergence really resonates because the crosscurrents of themes and stories have provided us with this once in a lifetime opportunity to see Judaism and Americana align,” he opined.

At the heart of both Thanksgiving and Chanukah, he said, “is the search for religious freedom, for a refuge, for a homeland. Both holidays symbolize the achievements of the dream to observe one’s religion, ideals and practices as one chooses. And, of course, family and food are fundamental to both as well.”

There are few people in Philadelphia who understand the relationship among food, family and holidays better than Terry Berch McNally. As the co-owner of London Grill, the Fairmount mainstay, she has been serving Jewish holiday staples for more than two decades. This Chanukah will be like all other Cha­nukahs, she said — with one major exception. Since the kitchen staff will be so busy replenishing the buffet table on Thanksgiving for the 200 or so hungry diners, she will be shuttling the latkes over from her house next door to the restaurant — but only on request.

“I can swing that,” she said, insisting she will take care of her holiday regulars celebrating both. “If you’re Jewish and you’re there for Thanksgiving, I’ll make you a plate of latkes — but you have to be sure to ask for it.” Every other night of the holiday, she added, the restaurant staff will be making the latkes.

While Berch McNally is legendary for accommodating her restaurant patrons, she has been less so to her own family leading up to this year’s double celebration. “We’re going to light the menorah and say the prayers, but I’m separating” the holidays, she said,  with Thanksgiving in the afternoon and Chanukah after sundown. “I finally had to say, enough — no more ‘Chanukah at Thanksgiving’ talk in my house!”

That attitude sums up what some fear as the downside to this unusual convergence — fatigue leading to disengagement. “I get weary and wary of the juxtaposition of these two very separate and distinct festivals,” said Rabbi Robert S. Leib, the senior rabbi of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington. American Jews can acknowledge the overlap, he said, but “I don’t think we need to necessarily go beyond that. It’s very nice and it brings us all together, but I don’t want my congregants to lose sight of the very special, unique qualities of Chanukah because of this convergence with Thanksgiving.”

It is a delicate balance for Leib to strike, not least because his synagogue will be hosting the 63rd annual Abington Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service on Nov. 26. The event brings people of all faiths together in the spirit of community that both holidays were founded upon. As a way to capitalize on that spirit, he said, attendees will be able to contribute toward Because We Care baskets, the Jewish Federation of Greater Phil­a­delphia initiative to help those in need.

Leib is happy to advocate for keeping the spotlight on Chanukah and its message during this unusual holiday season. “Where would we be without Cha­nukah?” he asked. “We need to give thanks for the prowess, the might, the strength to fight against power and against assimilation.”

Yet, it is because of assimilation that such a minor Jewish holiday has developed into a major one in the United States. “Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday to become more popular in the United States,” over time, explained Dianne Ashton, the author of the recently published book, Hanukkah in America.

Ashton, a professor at Rowan University, traces Chanukah’s rise in popularity to a pair of Reform rabbis in Cincinnati in the 1860s who began the tradition of holding children’s Chanu­kah festivals at their synagogues. The holiday has continued to gain in popularity, she said, not just because it provides the only viable alternative to Christmas for Jews, but because “everybody gets involved in it — children, parents, relatives — and because it involves popular culture.”

With this once-in-several-lifetimes event capturing both the popular imagination and multiple news cycles, some see a potentially transformative power of such an occurrence. Lila Corwin Berman, a professor at Temple University and the director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History there, thinks that all of the attention focused on the holiday could be an opportunity to make a real difference. “I would love to see some ways that Chanukah could be repurposed,” she said, “like with chocolate gelt. What would happen if more Jews decided that they wouldn’t give gelt to their children if it was made by slave labor children in the Ivory Coast — but that they would give it if they knew it was made with fair-trade chocolate?”

Corwin Ber­man acknowledges that the anti-assimilationist Maccabees may not have approved of celebrating an American holiday with a Jewish one, but she intends to take full advantage of it.

“It’s kind of nice, because you usually don’t spend Chanukah with family,” she said, adding that “one thing we have learned from all of these studies floating around is that people want to feel connected to something larger than themselves in a Jewish context — that makes this a meaningful opportunity.”
 

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