We tend to forget that the pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock were immigrants. And since then America has been a land of arrivals, where peoples of different origins joined together to build a republic. My ancestors became part of this story in the early 1900s when Jews from Europe found their way to the new world seeking refuge. Thanksgiving has always been the holiday that has grounded and celebrated my family’s American identity. It made us deeply proud and immensely grateful to be a part of this diverse nation of citizens bound together by a generosity of spirit and a constitution.
This sense of immigrant gratitude became a ritual part of Thanksgiving during my teens when my mother began sharing her story. My mother was one of 1300 French children who were hidden in various monasteries, orphanages and private homes during WWII. On Thanksgiving we would ask her to share her memories of the nuns and the French farmers who risked their lives to save her and her sister. When we were young she gave us an edited version, focusing mostly on the riveting account of her post-war voyage across the ocean as an 11 year old orphan.
About thirty years ago, when I was in my twenties, she began sharing with all of us some of the more painful and moving details. There were stories of cold cruelty and abuse and others of the men and women whose open-hearted courage saved her life. After a story or two we’d sing the American spiritual, “We gather together” in gratitude for the “wicked oppressing” that had “ceased from distressing” and we’d dive into her marvelous meal.
The themes of hospitality are richly alive for Jews during this time of year. Typically a week or two before Thanksgiving, in synagogues everywhere, we read the biblical source for the commandment to welcome the stranger. The biblical narrative that juxtaposes Abraham and Sarah’s tent to the city of Sodom bears repeating especially in the light of the fractures and fears that have been unleashed during this last year.
In Genesis 18, Abraham, himself an immigrant from Ur, sits at the entrance of his tent. Three dusty nomadic strangers are spotted in the distance. Who are they? Are they merchants, or robbers? And even if they are just a couple of traveling vagrants, being that they are clearly not locals, maybe passive inattention is best. What concern of Abraham’s should these men be?
Of course, the father of all the monotheistic faiths doesn’t hesitate. As God appears to him in the oaks of Mamre, Abraham rushes out to welcome the vagabonds into his tent for rest and refreshment. This is no side show, but a key test of Abraham’s fearless kindness, the inverse of the city of Sodom where generosity and protection of strangers was deemed a crime.
For Ezekiel, Sodom was a place of cruelty, arrogance and indifference to the poor. The early church fathers, like the rabbis of their time, spoke of the sins of inhospitality, greed and sloth, but not homosexuality. For both early traditions, the intended gang rape was akin to a lynching, an act of barbarous violence, not lust. What motivated the violence was the fear of loss. The rabbis of Talmud described Sodom as an area of unusual natural resources, precious stones, silver and gold. Jealous of their great wealth and suspicious of outsiders’ desires to share in it, they agreed to overturn the ancient law of hospitality to wayfarers. There is no better biblical symbol for this sort of walled off selfishness than Sodom.
A famous rabbinic tale relates that the Sodomites had a bed for weary guests upon which they might rest. When the wayfarer would lie down on the Sodomite bed, they made sure that he fit it perfectly. A short man was stretched to fit it and a tall man was cut to size. The people who live in Sodom are not only protective of their wealth and punishing of acts of charity, they are also desperate to force everyone to fit a single measure. What makes Sodom the right kind of neighborhood is the comfort of familiarity that zones out difference.
The Bible reminds us many times that since we were strangers in the land of Egypt, treated with suspicion and subject to forced labor we are commanded to behave otherwise and to “love the stranger.” God’s mighty, heroic and awesome greatness, in Deuteronomy 10:17-19 is evidenced not by splitting a sea or creating a galaxy. Scripture speaks of an omnipotent God whose power is articulate in principled fairness, in justice for the orphan and the widow and most prominently in care for the stranger. The commandment that emerges from the shared biblical legacy could not be clearer: “Thou shalt love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
And why must we love the stranger? Because “you were once strangers.”
When my mother was five years old, her father, a young enterprising businessman, was taken from his bed in the middle of the night. It was not the Nazis, but the collaborating French police, that arrested him. He was among the very first Jews to be taken, because, unlike his cousins, he was an immigrant from Odessa who had not yet achieved French citizenship. He was transferred to an internment camp in Drancy and from Drancy to Auschwitz. He was gassed there two months later.
Following the round up, my grandmother, mother and aunt went into hiding. A few months later, shaken by two very close calls, she turned to a French underground agency for help. For the next two and half years, five courageous Catholic families and dozens of brave nuns protected my mother and aunt during the deadly ravages of xenophobia unleashed by Nazi Germany, to which much of the French political leadership acquiesed.
My mother survived the war as a nine-year old orphan. The following year, she remembers passing the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor on her journey from Paris to Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Lady Liberty holding out her lamp and the brave Christians who sheltered my mother in the midst of French and German nationalist brutality are remembered each year as we sit down on Thanksgiving. The stories of care for those “tempest tossed” are core to the American experience and foundational to all those who hold the Bible sacred.
We are presently in the midst of a resurgent nativism that denies American history and defies the very essence of American character. What is asked of us now, those of us who are grateful children of America’s promise, is the courage of resistance. Abraham argued that Sodom could be saved with even ten righteous people. Today, across our great country, I believe that there are tens if not hundreds of millions of us who are deeply committed to an American greatness that is in faithful concert with God’s love of the stranger.
This year, I’ll be missing my mother’s Polish-French-American Turkey stuffing. She’s escaping the Midwest chill and cooking up a storm in Los Angeles with my brothers and their families. For me, there will be none of the tart cranberry relish and the warm pumpkin pie that my French mother adopted into her culunary repertoire. And I will miss her stories.
Knowing that we’re alone, my cousin Jan has invited us to join her in a meal with her husband’s family in Saratoga. Sue and Jim have a Thanksgiving tradition. For a number of years, they have invited all the international students attending Skidmore to their home for Thanksgiving. It appears that we will be dining with students from Malawi, Swaziland, Nigeria, Uganda, Mali, Kenya, Bangalore and North Sudan. Janet and I will share a few stories from our mothers’ repertoires, tales of dread and miracles of salvation. We’ll share the scene on the Polish Oceanliner, the Sobietzky, where Francoise and Gizelle Silberstein amid hundred of refugees weeped and cheered as Lady Liberty came into view.
But this year, those stories will not be all. We will be eager to hear the stories of gratitude shared by our guests and their impression of our still young, industrious, diverse and — despite the paroxysms of racism and selfishness — a fundamentally just, generous and welcoming country. Together, around tables modest and mighty, we should all remember our blessings, raise our voices in chorus and continue to defend the human brotherhood that binds all our differences and crowns what is truly good about America, indeed what is Great about America, from sea to shining sea.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a founder and director of Eshel, an LGBT support, education and advocacy organization in the Orthodox Jewish community and the author of the award winning book, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, (University of Wisconsin Press). He lives with his partner Steven Goldstein and daughter Amalia in Boston.
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