Thanksgiving’s Power to Unite 'Mixed' Jewish Families

For families of mixed religious backgrounds, Jewish holidays can be a tense; this all-American holiday conveniently averts that.

A table set for Thanksgiving.
Dreamstime

The coming of Thanksgiving is giving my interfaith family of sorts a collective sigh of relief.

I say “of sorts” because in reality, my family is not actually interfaith. Yet, sometimes, growing up as a part of a close-knit family whose observance levels run the gamut, it can feel that as though it is. Growing up, we observed most of the Jewish holidays, but I almost never spent any of them with my Orthodox cousins. This was not a function of our physical distance (we were always quite close), but spiritual distance; most of us would drive on holidays to get together, but they would not. As my personal observance grew and I stopped driving on holidays, I eventually came to appreciate how much living a life of religious observance requires us to sacrifice on Jewish holidays. Unquestionably, there has been much gained by my decision to be observant. Nonetheless, while most of my family continues to celebrate only 30 miles away, I sometimes feel alone and trapped by my religious observance.

I know that I am not the only American Jew who struggles with having this kind of mixed family. And this is perhaps why for families like ours Thanksgiving has become such an important holiday. It is one of the only family get-togethers that is universally observed among American Jews that has no yom-tov related restrictions that cause tensions in mixed families. There is no need to be concerned about whether the eruv is down, or whether we might make a mistake by accidently flicking a light switch.

On an even deeper level, Thanksgiving is a holiday that brings us together by its universal focus on gratitude. No matter what religious beliefs or practices families hold, all people of faith or no faith can appreciate the importance of being grateful. As American Jews, we remain, as historian Jack Wertheimer calls us, “A People Divided” by the ways we choose to practice Judaism. However, observant or not, Thanksgiving reminds us all that we have a lot to be thankful for, not least of which is living in a society where we have the right to make the choice of whether or not to be observant.

The very inception of American Thanksgiving’s near mythical origins begin with a group known as the Pilgrims fleeing to America in the 1620s in search of a place where they could worship without fear of religious persecution. And since the first community of American Jews arrived in 1654 fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition that had come to Brazil, America has in this very same tradition remained a safe-haven for Jews. Today, Jews of all backgrounds can come together to appreciate that fact, among so many other things we can appreciate about our lives, regardless of our level of religious observance.

In our home, the Thanksgiving meal always begins with the blessing Hamotzi. Then, in a very time-honored, American ritual that I suspect is practiced in Jewish homes across the country, we share what we are thankful for that particular year.

The great Israeli poet Abba Kovner once wrote, “No Jew is alone on his Holy Days.” This is very true. Those of us fortunate to live in Jewish communities gather together in synagogues to celebrate with like-minded Jews. We then invite our newfound friends into our homes and they become like family. Unfortunately, though, in our modern times, as Jewish families are increasingly geographically spread out and of mixed religious backgrounds, we do grapple with a degree of loneliness that can sometimes come from living a traditionally observant life.  

Yet, no Jew is ever alone, physically or spiritually, on Thanksgiving. By its very design, Thanksgiving unites Jewish families like mine by turning us away from the particulars that sometimes may divide us through a celebration of the universal that brings us together. This is why when I join my family this year, and I will unquestionably have a lot to be thankful for, I will begin by being thankful for Thanksgiving itself.

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.