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Whom to Thank for America's Feast

November 23, 2005 By:
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"The First Thanksgiving" by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

When Americans sit down to their turkey and gravy dinner this Thanksgiving, and make the important decisions of the day - sweet potatoes or mashed, pumpkin pie or apple - some may actually stop to reflect on what this holiday really is all about.

The Plymouth colonists and their neighboring American Indians, who according to the commonly accepted history taught the Pilgrims how to prepare for particularly harsh New England winters, celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621 after the harvest of that year proved bountiful. The three-day celebration joined the two cultures and, in a way, recognized that two seemingly different sets of people could work together to achieve greatness. Thanksgiving became regularly celebrated in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday.

But aside from the native peoples, those first celebrants were deeply religious Christians who had come to the New World in the pursuit of religious freedom. Indeed, the very idea of a day that is set aside to "give thanks" brings a religious element into a holiday that wasn't originally geared solely to offer prayer.

So as Jews sit down to their Thanksgiving meals this Thursday, the question looms: Are Jews, in actuality, observing a non-Jewish religious holiday?

Absolutely not, asserted Rabbi Jay Stein, leader of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.

"It's an American holiday," he said. "Jews have always contributed to the landscape of American culture, so there's no reason not to participate."

Stein said the day gives American Jews - just as it does people of all faiths - the opportunity to get together, and share the joy of friendship and families. He added that while there may not be a specific synagogue service set up for Thanksgiving, his congregants will still have an opportunity to pray and give thanks during the daily minyan.

"Every morning, we thank God in a prayer called Mizmor L'todah," noted Stein, referring to a psalm recited as part of the weekday service. "Thanksgiving morning we will emphasize it."

Some Holiday Commonalities

Though some rabbis won't recognize turkey day and believe Jews should not celebrate a holiday that doesn't have Jewish history behind it, many others agree with Stein that giving thanks for good health, the closeness of family or even the accessibility of basic needs is very much a part of Judaism; Thanksgiving is just another opportunity to do so.

Some, like Rabbi Lance Sussman, congregational leader of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, even draw similarities between the holiday and the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot.

"It would be accurate to say that this is the American Sukkot, but not because the Puritans sat down and read the Old Testament," said Sussman, addressing some theories that the Puritans were actually reinterpreting Sukkot when celebrating the first Thanksgiving. "In terms of historical details, structurally and thematically, the holidays are very much the same."

For the large part, though, Jews are left with their own ways to observe the last Thursday in November - like Har Zion, synagogues typically don't hold a service dedicated to the holiday. But several area synagogues do participate in interfaith celebrations with local churches or mosques throughout the week. As part of these ceremonies, each faith exhibits its own prayer or tradition for being grateful.

At Haverford College on Sunday, 20 religious organizations - the Jewish contingent consisted of Har Zion, Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley and Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood - held their particular program. The evening celebration, attended by some 100 people of different faiths, featured prayers and reflections by various religious leaders; songs performed by a choir made up of members of the Beth Am Israel Choir, Main Line Gospel Choir, Main Line Reform Temple Choir and Zion Baptist Church Choir; and even a traditional Indian dance by the Deer Chaser Dance Troupe, made up of American Indian children.

Some of the reflections and prayers made references to Jesus or Mohammad, which surprised - and even offended - a handful of Jewish attendees who thought references to each faith's deity should not have been a part of the ceremony.

Rabbi David Straus of Main Line Reform Temple offered an alternative take on that sentiment. "We are a part of a broader religious community," he noted. "It's not an interfaith service where we find what we can agree on; it's one where we can show that we can pray in a unique way and still be able to share that."

Other interfaith services taking place around the city have rules and guidelines outlining what can or cannot be mentioned as part of the prayers.

But regardless of how the services play out or what content is included, several rabbis reiterated that there's nothing wrong with Jews having yet another day to give thanks.

Sussman noted that the holiday affords Jewish people the opportunity to celebrate diversity in America and take part in a national holiday - without compromising any of their religious beliefs - and maybe even add a Jewish spin to it, as did the American Jewish Committee when it released its "America's Table" Thanksgiving reader in 2001.

"Jews have a long history of taking the local culture and turning it into theirs," he said, citing the church origins of some tunes used in Shabbat services or the design of the Talmud. "That's what Judaism is; it's digesting the cultural smorgasbord and turning it into something Jewish."

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