“Uncle Melvin’s birthday party.”
That is what my mother’s Chabad relatives used to call her family’s Thanksgiving dinner when she grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s.
While these ultra-Orthodox family members did not think it was appropriate to celebrate a holiday paying homage to Pilgrims and Native Americans, they did feel it was perfectly acceptable to commemorate Uncle Melvin’s blessed birth, which occurred on November 25 (which almost always fell out around Thanksgiving Day).
My ultra-Orthodox relatives conveniently renamed the celebration so they would not miss out on an elaborate meal of Turkey, stuffing, pie and all the trimmings. The non-religious members of the family, my mother included, obviously understood the purpose of the ruse, but since it brought everyone to the table for a festive meal, the subterfuge was laughed off or ignored.
It turns out that my mother’s relatives were and are not unique in their objection to celebrating Thanksgiving. While each year, millions of Americans of all different religious, cultural and ethnic persuasions look forward to sitting down to a traditional Thanksgiving meal, many ultra-Orthodox Jews ignore all such culinary commemorations and treat Thanksgiving like any other day of the week.
Most yeshivas and kollels are open. Some ultra-orthodox schools may be closed, but some are open for half a day. Agudath Israel of America, which serves as a leadership and policy umbrella organization for Yeshivish Jews in the United States, frequently holds their annual convention during Thanksgiving week, and this year is no exception: The Agudah Convention, “Moving Forward,” begins on Thanksgiving Day.
My immediate family, who identifies as Yeshivish (non-Hasidic) ultra-Orthodox, has a casual relationship with Thanksgiving. Some years, we’ve gone out to a Thanksgiving buffet at a local kosher restaurant. Other years my father, who is the cook in our family, has prepared a traditional Thanksgiving meal. These days, we just push off the celebration to Friday night and have a festive Shabbat dinner with our neighbors; we refer to that Friday night dinner of turkey as our “Shabbos Thanksgiving meal.”
Still, I wanted to understand how other Yeshivish families treat Thanksgiving and see where the seeming ambivalence to such a popular American holiday came from.
I spoke with my Lakewood rebbetzin, who grew up ultra-Orthodox in America in the 1950s and 60s. I asked if Yeshivish people generations ago celebrated Thanksgiving.
“My family would do a dinner,” she told me. “My mother made a turkey. Many people had hakaras hatov (gratitude) to America after the war, for opening their doors. But then we stopped doing it. Rav Kamenetsky said there was a lot of religion behind it, so we didn’t celebrate it anymore.”
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky was a prominent Torah scholar, posek (halachic decisor) and Talmudist in the post-World War II American Jewish community. My rebbetzein’s family was close to him. Coincidentally, he didn’t think that turkey was kosher at all, unlike most of the rest of the kosher-keeping world. (While he didn’t observe Thanksgiving, he was known to pass out candy on Halloween, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Was Rabbi Kamenetsky onto something? While most Americans consider Thanksgiving to be a secular holiday, there is a plausible and historical basis to a religious interpretation of the holiday.
The Pilgrims were Puritans — a Christian sect who left England and sought refuge and religious solace in the New World due to the corruption of, and persecution by, the Church of England.
The Puritan concept of God was based on the Trinity, which is in conflict with Judaism’s concept of the absolute unity or oneness of God.
According to traditional Jewish sources, the theology of the Trinity is akin to idolatry since it is not deemed to be a purely monotheistic belief system.
The purpose of the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims in November 1621 was to give thanks to their concept of God for having saved them from a harsh winter. It might follow that recreating a celebration today which originally paid homage to a polytheistic concept of God would be forbidden as an act of idol worship.
Following this logic, it makes perfect sense why the overwhelming majority of families in Lakewood and other Yeshivish communities in America do not celebrate Thanksgiving.
But like any topic, there are other views on this matter in the ultra-Orthodox world. I spoke to a Yeshivish rabbi in my community and his position was clear: “Of course you should follow your posek, but I don’t see a problem with Thanksgiving. Rav Moshe [Feinstein] allowed people to eat turkey on Thanksgiving as long as it wasn’t this set thing. Those who want to celebrate Thanksgiving have an authority to rely on.”
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was regarded by many as the de facto supreme halachic authority for Yeshivish Jews in North America, and the possible Christian underpinnings of Thanksgiving did not seem to bother this rabbi at all.
“I really believe Thanksgiving today is a secular holiday and not a religious holiday. The focus is more on secular values, and values do not make it more forbidden. Look, people can celebrate Thanksgiving differently. It doesn’t even have to be about giving thanks. I think the focus is more on having strong family bonds that unfortunately many Americans don’t have today,” the rabbi continued.
But even with a dispensation from Rabbi Feinstein, it seems like the Yeshivish world is very comfortable ignoring the day. Some do so simply for practical and not religious reasons.
A former neighbor I spoke to who does not observe Thanksgiving gave me this rationale: “Who wants to cook such a big meal and eat such a big meal on Thursday when you have to do the same thing a day later on Friday, on Shabbos?” she asked me.
“If someone else cooked it, I would go. Honestly, my boys are in yeshiva and no one is home. I would just rather focus on cooking and getting ready for Shabbos.”
Do Yeshivish people feel like they are missing out by not celebrating Thanksgiving? Even though my rebbetzin grew up celebrating, she does not feel like she is at a loss. “Eating turkey is not a way to show patriotism or gratitude to the United States,” she said.
“Even though schools and offices are open in Lakewood, everyone is thankful to America. Today with Thanksgiving, the emphasis is on eating and not on being grateful. Being a law-abiding American and upholding everything that is true and right counts more.”