Jewish Americans and Thanksgiving

While some are wondering how to include native Americans in this day’s preparations and festivities, David Swartz reminded readers that Southerners were not so comfortable with a holiday rooted in New England’s heritage:

In his book The First Thanksgiving, he writes, “White southerners associated the holiday with New England, and that made it suspect in their eyes.” If he’s right, sectional rivalry explains why these old articles from Kentucky seem so strange and ahistorical, as if Thanksgiving comes out of nowhere. Southern narratives eliminated Pilgrims from the holiday’s history because they were from the North.

Indeed, northerners often encouraged the association of their region with antislavery. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, politicians endorsed the abolition of slavery in their Thanksgiving proclamations. Antislavery societies sometimes took up collections at Thanksgiving services. Abolitionists from New England connected the “Pilgrim Spirit” to John Brown’s raid in Virginia.

One frustrated writer in Richmond, Virginia, complained that “it is a common notion of New England, that it is the hub of the whole creation, the axis of the entire universe, and that when it thanks God that it is not as other men, everybody else is doing the same. . . . What a race these sycophants are!”

When I think of Americans who are ambivalent about Thanksgiving, my thoughts run to Jewish Americans. Barry Levenson captured the awkwardness in Avalon:

Then Christopher Guest ran into trouble with making a movie called “Home for Purim” that needed to be rebranded as “Home Thanksgiving.”  Why?  Because marketing a Jewish holiday movie is impossible:

Leave it Woody Allen to be the Jewish-American most comfortable with the Yankee holiday in “Hannah and Her Sisters”:

Forget football. See a Jewish-American movie about Thanksgiving.

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Ichabod Indeed

Noah Millman’s post about Passover observance among non-strict Jewish persons like himself reminded me of a stunning Old Testament reading from Sunday’s morning worship service. It is hard to believe how far God’s chosen people had fallen until you read all that King Josiah needed to do just to return to square one. For instance:

Moreover, the altar at Bethel, the high place erected by Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, that altar with the high place he pulled down and burned, reducing it to dust. He also burned the Asherah. 16 And as Josiah turned, he saw the tombs there on the mount. And he sent and took the bones out of the tombs and burned them on the altar and defiled it, according to the word of the Lord that the man of God proclaimed, who had predicted these things. 17 Then he said, “What is that monument that I see?” And the men of the city told him, “It is the tomb of the man of God who came from Judah and predicted these things that you have done against the altar at Bethel.” 18 And he said, “Let him be; let no man move his bones.” So they let his bones alone, with the bones of the prophet who came out of Samaria. 19 And Josiah removed all the shrines also of the high places that were in the cities of Samaria, which kings of Israel had made, provoking the Lord to anger. He did to them according to all that he had done at Bethel. 20 And he sacrificed all the priests of the high places who were there, on the altars, jand burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.

21 And the king commanded all the people, “Keep the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.” 22 For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. 23 But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the Lord in Jerusalem.

24 Moreover, Josiah put away the mediums and the necromancers and the household gods and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might establish the words of the law that were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the Lord. 25 Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him. (2 Kings 23:15-25)

Sounds like the sort of text that would have come in handy for Protestant iconoclasm in the sixteenth century.

But back to Millman. Unlike the Israelites who had gone 18 years without observing Passover, it is now wallpaper for modern Jews no matter what the level of observance:

Although I have fallen away from observance in many areas, Passover remains a special case where I remain a bit medakdek – not by comparison with somebody strictly observant, but in comparison with my year-round standards of observance. In particular, we always do a fairly complete rendition of the Passover seder, reading (and singing) the complete text of the haggadah.

Although arguably more observant and thoughtful about it, Millman’s experience reinforces how common it has been for Passover to be observed even in those families like the one Barry Levinson portrayed in Liberty Heights.

The contrast between Passover frequency and infrequency is to (all about) me staggering.

Does It Fall Short of Objectionable While Also Qualifying as Inspiring?

Wilbur Cross issued the following Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1936 as Governor of Connecticut (thanks to Michael Sean Winters):

Time out of mind at this turn of the seasons when the hardy oak leaves rustle in the wind and the frost gives a tang to the air and the dusk falls early and the friendly evenings lengthen under the heel of Orion, it has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator and Preserver, who has brought us by a way that we did not know to the end of another year. In observance of this custom, I appoint Thursday, the twenty-sixth of November, as a day of Public Thanksgiving for the blessings that have been our common lot and have placed our beloved State with the favored regions of earth – for all the creature comforts: the yield of the soil that has fed us and the richer yield from labor of every kind that has sustained our lives – and for all those things, as dear as breath to the body, that quicken man’s faith in his manhood, that nourish and strengthen his spirit to do the great work still before him: for the brotherly word and act; for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long, long search after truth; for liberty and for justice freely granted by each to his fellow and so as freely enjoyed; and for the crowning glory and mercy of peace upon our land; – that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our Harvest Home.

I myself (all about me) like this because Cross, who held a Ph.D. in English from Yale and was dean of the University’s graduate school for almost 15 years, used imagery that maybe doesn’t soar but does turn down a road generally not taken in expressions of civil religion. I also prefer such proclamations to come from state governments rather than the Feds.

But I do wonder if such an expression of thanksgiving to the divine would be sufficiently devout for the BeeBees, for instance. At the same time, I can’t help but think of Jewish Americans, like the ones portrayed in Avalon and Annie Hall, who could never figure out why they needed to eat Turkey once a year.