Remind me why we do this again?
I have something to admit: My family thinks Thanksgiving is a big let-down.
I realize this is about as close to blasphemy as you can get in American culture. Give me a chance to explain, and to offer a solution.
Facing the hard cold facts, my family and I do *A LOT* of Jewish celebrating through the year. From Passover (which is at the top of our list) to Sukkot, and all the various moments in-between like Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, Shavuot and even Tu B’Shvat) we typically have a special celebration almost once a month. Then there’s the big daddy of Jewish holidays: Shabbat. It should be pretty obvious to anyone who is on this site why THAT’S a big deal at our house. Finally, let’s not overlook Havdallah, the other dessert holiday.
Each of these celebrations comes with a special meal, and most have special foods associated with them. Each celebration also has it’s own significance, and rituals that go along with it. There are always candles to light, blessings to be said. There are moments to be remembered – defeats to live down, mistakes to learn from, and triumphs to warm our hearts. There are stories to tell – from Torah, from Talmud, from Midrash both ancient and new. We Jews have invented rituals both silly and somber to mark these times; parables and dinner table plays appropriate to children and the child in all of us; readings from our texts and our lives that catch in our throats. We choke down horseradish, lick honey off the covers of books, beat the person next to us with green onions, stick raisins in our challah, and set off smoke alarms frying all manner of things in oil.
Which brings us back to Thanksgiving.
About 3 years ago, because of our schedule and those of our family and friends, we found ourselves having a quiet little Turkey-day with just my wife and I and our 4 kids. As we prepared the various dishes, my older kids kept asking what the theme was. “No theme.” we reminded them. We set the dining room table, laid out the food, and called everyone in. Nobody sat down, and the kids looked at me, waiting for me to talk about the Torah portion.
“Where da candles?” asked the 3 year old. “No candles, buddy,” I told him. “It’s Thanksgiving, not Shabbat.”
My wife and I talked with the kids about being thankful, about the story of the colonizing of America and some of the hardship those first settlers from Europe encountered. But you could tell from their expressions that this was more like a fictional story than history. I quickly realized that “hungry” had overcome “curious”, and we tabled (no pun intended) the discussion in favor of sampling all the food we’d worked to create during the day.
As we were cleaning up my 11 year old expressed a feeling I’ve heard from many friends on Thanksgiving: “I’m glad we only do this once a year,”
…but she followed it up with, “and I’m glad we get to have Shabbat every week instead.”
There’s an episode of Roseanne (OK, go ahead and roll your eyes) where they are standing around the table, and Roseanne says “We oughtta say something about being thankful or a prayer or something”. In the end, nobody knows what to say, and they just dig into the food. I remember thinking as I watched that it wasn’t a funny scene, but it was very honest, because I have experienced Thanksgivings where the same thing happened, more or less, for real.
I wonder how many families this year will, as they are faced with a moment of celebration, find themselves at a loss for what to say or do?
Why are talking donkeys and 5,000 year old Patriarchs and Matriarchs more real to my children than Pilgrims who helped found the country where they live?
Part of the reason surely is emphasis in the home. We live with Shabbat as a weekly visitor in our home, whereas Thanksgiving is just that holiday that sits awkwardly between Halloween and Hanukah. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebeccah and the rest of the ancient Jew Crew are part of our daily discussion. Pocahontas and her story is a movie from Disney (and a frustratingly inaccurate one at that).
But that’s only part of the reason, I think. The other reason why the Jewish moments seem so accessible is precisely because they are structured. From family to family we as Jews may individually decide what we will or won’t do and observe, but there is clarity for the list of options for any given celebration. Yom Tov candles are lit here. Kol Nidre recided there. You don’t recite “al ha-nissim” on Passover. You don’t light the chanukiah on Tu B’shevat.
What do we say at the Thanksgiving table? Beyond the turkey and trimmings, what phrases are obligatory, which are options? We don’t know. In the face of the ambiguity, even Fourth of July is more concrete in our understanding of how we observe it.
If you find yourself, this coming Thursday, frustrated with a lack of ceremony, I encourage you to look at the 3 different “seders” created by Phillis Somer (Ima on and off the Bima) here on her website.
Or invent your own, and comment below on how it went.