For our family, Thanksgiving starts with the food. Over the years, each family member has been allowed to weigh-in on favorite dishes, until, after numerous iterations, the menu has reached perfection. There is, of course, the turkey (for us with orange juice basting to keep it moist), seasoned bread stuffing (cooked separately from the turkey to satisfy the vegetarians), sweet potatoes with pecans (no marshmallows for us, please), cranberry sauce with real cranberries, salads, good wine and beer to accompany, and then the highlight - three different pies for dessert, as settled upon years ago by our three children; chocolate town pie (basically, a huge tollhouse chocolate chip cookie), pumpkin pie and pecan pie.
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When we immigrated to Israel in 1996, the question wasn’t whether to continue the traditional meal, but how to manage the logistics, since Thanksgiving is a workday/school day here. Our solution, like many American transplants here, is to celebrate Shabbat Thanksgiving, maintaining the menu, but serving it on Friday night as the Shabbat meal.
During that meal, we ask each person around the table to share a personal reflection on what he or she is thankful for. Our responses over the years have tended to focus more on connection with our growing family, Baruch Hashem; a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law, a granddaughter and a grandson. We appreciate both those physically present at the celebration, whose company we are enjoying, as well as those who are emotionally present, whom we work to continually connect with from a distance, via Skype, photos, videos, email and phone. My wife, Debbie, and I are in that statistical anomaly at our age, with all four of our parents still living and still married to the same partner. Now that is something for which to be very thankful.
Over the years, we have enjoyed introducing and sharing our family minhagim (customs) with friends from all over the world. And this year, in celebration of the once-in-our-lifetime convergence of Thanksgiving with the first day of Hanukkah, we are breaking tradition, travelling to Northern California to be with two of our three children and family, Debbie’s parents, her brothers and extended family.
In addition to our traditional observance of Thanksgiving Day this year, we will light the menorah, play dreidel and add potato latkes to the menu.
Beyond that, we will consider what lies beyond this calendar convergence - something deeper, more intrinsic - that connects these two holidays.
A classic summary of most Jewish holidays is “They persecuted us, we overcame, let’s eat.” Hanukkah certainly fits this description. It is known as the Festival of Lights, but also the Feast of Dedication, a celebration of the victory by the Maccabees over the Greeks in the 2nd century B.C.E. After intense fighting, both against the external enemy, as well as an internal civil war, the Second Temple was rededicated. The miracle we celebrate through eight days of lighting the menorah is that the single cruse of unblemished oil that was discovered on reentering the Temple lasted the eight days necessary to prepare new oil to the required standard of ritual purity. This indication of G-d’s favor and presence through the miracle is what we celebrate, by publically bringing light into the darkness.
Thanksgiving, too, can be included in this formulation. The Pilgrims left the Old World for the New, fleeing religious oppression, with a belief that Divine Providence was guiding their journey. These Puritans were viewed as radical religious reformers, wanting to replace the traditional Christian holidays with days of feasting and fasting, depending on the blessings received or not. There’s was an immediate, personally-felt presence of G-d in their lives.
The first recorded Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 in response to a good harvest and then sporadically until 1789 when U.S. President George Washington proclaimed November 26 "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty G-d.”
The connection between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah was explicitly noted in an address by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”l, in a recorded address on December 13, 1984. The Rebbe recalled, with deep gratitude to the United States, the religious freedom that Jews enjoy in a country that was established, “not just on faith in G-d, but in G-d as the Creator and Director of the world … principles laid down by the original settlers and reaffirmed by the founding fathers …. formalized by establishing a holiday of thanksgiving to G-d.”
The Rebbe went on to acknowledge appreciation to then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan for his support of the lighting of the menorah in public places across the United States. He then linked the deep, related messages of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as giving expressions of thanks to G-d for His deliverance of the weak over the mighty, of the righteous over the wicked. Reagan later officially thanked the group from Chabad that participated with him in lighting that year’s White House Hanukkah menorah. He ended his letter with the prayer:
"May the light of the menorah always be a source of strength and inspiration to the Jewish people and to all mankind."
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.