Erev Thanksgiving, and I am as every year dazzled by how very Jewish this holiday is — in its way, every bit as Jewish as Hanukkah, now just days away. Think on it: Suppose the Pilgrims had bumped into a wild boar instead of encountering a turkey. Thanksgiving’s centerpiece would be on oinker rather than a gobbler, and we (and our Muslim neighbors as well) would be locked out of America’s fall-time feast. Or suppose the songs associated with the day were Thanksgiving carols, as easily they might have been, instead of two hymns that speak of God but not of Christ. (“Bless this house, O Lord we pray” and “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.”) Double-locked out.
Instead, we have a quintessentially Jewish holiday, the family gathered from far and wide around a festive table. Not for nothing did Barry Levinson, then still reticent about his Jewish thing, transform the obvious Seder of his film, Avalon, into a Thanksgiving celebration. In my own Baltimore, which preceded his by a scant five or six years, the Jews were not yet quite ready to do Thanksgiving. I remember no parental complaint when, erev Thanksgiving, my friends (chaverim, really) would pile into the back of a moving van and head 40 miles away to Habonim Camp Moshava to spend the whole of the weekend at our annual camp reunion. (Turkey? We mostly made do with peanut butter, the luxury of meat loaf reserved for Shabbat.) Back then, Thanksgiving belonged to the Pilgrims, austere and remote, and our only connection to America’s days of yore was via Columbus, who maybe was a Jew, and the fact that he set sail, or so we were taught, as the Jews of Spain were in the process of being expelled. Pilgrims? No thanks.
Back then was long ago. As tentative as the immigrant generation was regarding its claim on America’s symbols, we of the second generation came to understand that those symbols claimed us. And in Thanksgiving’s case, without any of the ambivalence or the inherent alienation of feeling claimed — claimed and excluded at the same time — by Christmas.
So: Food, family and — quietly — thanks, both general and specific.
This year’s feast is, however, more challenging than usual. For every thrilling or even simply feel-good story, from Chilean coal miners to GM’s apparent recovery, there have been dozens of examples of neglect, depravity, corruption, villainy. What, after all, is there to be grateful for in the midst of an ugly and arguably pointless war in Afghanistan? And of the Israel/Palestine peace process, best not to speak at all. And in America? There are, I am aware, those who will celebrate the results of the recent elections; I am decisively not among them. Of our president? True, he has accomplished a great deal more than he is generally given credit for — but true as well that he has accomplished a great deal less than many of us had supposed he would. And the economy, all those with foreclosed mortgages and all those without work? More than enough to sour the day.
But this quick summary is badly tilted. Its focus is on the world “out there,” and though that world inevitably affects our disposition, it is not the only world we inhabit. In the more intimate world, each of us can recall much for which to be thankful. (Nor, in fact, must we wait for the holiday to express our gratitude.) I think, for example — as I often do — of the kindness of strangers, of those who stretch, with time, with money, to contribute to the easing of others’ pain, and of those who, on seeing me ascending the stairs to the door of my building, struggling with altogether too many shopping bags, rush to offer their help. The quiet courtesies that come as grace notes that warm and encourage us. I think of a concert that was beyond convincing, and remember Einstein’s words: “For us there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.”
And then, of course, family. It is well to pause and be warmed by what, most days, we take for granted. I have several friends whose family relationships have long since been poisoned by one perceived transgression or another, and that is a sad reminder to celebrate the blessing of family when it comforts, when it is marked by reciprocated respect, when it is (at least mostly) easy. And: Have I mentioned my grandchildren? We are encircled by a rainbow.
Accordingly, when we assemble at my daughter’s home and begin, as we always do, with a tour around the table, each speaking her/his cause for gratitude, I will not be brief. The large sad things will linger, they always do. But on this Jewish and Everyone Else holiday, they will have no speaking part.