What Is the Proper Jewish Response to Thanksgiving?

With turkey alongside dairy pumpkin pie, the Thanksgiving table - in all its conflicted glory - encapsulates what it is to be an American Jew.

Rabbi Jonah Geffen
Rabbi Jonah Geffen
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Rabbi Jonah Geffen
Rabbi Jonah Geffen

Every year for Thanksgiving my family leaves our “shtetl” on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and head to the heartland. Year after year, dozens of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents gather in the small town just outside of the small city that is - even for those of us who did not grow up there - our hometown. Inside, we watch the parades on TV as footballs fly beneath orange leaves outside. In the basement there are hors d'oeuvres and drinks. And of course the Thanksgiving table, an American feast with all the trimmings; yams with marshmallows on top, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce still shaped like the can, and of course the necessary Jewish additions of brisket, kishka and stuffed cabbage.

Over the years I became an expert at navigating this table. Tough decisions had to be made.

Not all of the meat served at this table was kosher. We had to know which was which and make choices.

Even when I was too young for this distinction to have any deep relevance, I knew which turkey to take and which to leave. The manner in which I practiced my faith was my choice. Every year, as this distinction presented itself to me time and time again, and my response could change as freely as my will, a key question kept presenting itself to me: “What is my proper Jewish response to Thanksgiving?”

There were a few years where I snuck a little of that “other” turkey. Some years I chose a slice of dairy pumpkin pie, knowing it had only been 20 minutes since I put down my brisket. Over the years, the options available to me shrunk. I’m a rabbi now, and not only am I strictly kosher, I am a vegetarian and eat only organic produce. So these days I pass on nearly everything, trying to stay true to what I believe God asks of me.

I know it would be much easier just to skip Thanksgiving altogether, to avoid this table and the difficult choices it forces me to make, to leave this secular holiday off of my calendar. And yet I find myself drawn to it. I can’t stay away from this table, with its diversity of tastes and smells, its variety of adherence to religious tradition, and its representation of so many choices and preferences.

This table, in all its conflicted glory, is my Jewish-American experience. And with every year, my love for and appreciation of the stark beauty of this table grows.

This year, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincide and for the first time in several generations - sometime after the Cowboys and Lions take the field, after the turkeys have been carved and pumpkin pies sliced - Jews across the United States will stop, awaken from their tryptophan-induced comas and light Hanukkah candles. How incredibly beautiful!

And not just for the menurkeys, pumpkin challot, and sufganiyot filled with cranberry sauce. The beauty here is that in that moment of candle lighting when we bless the Holy One “who made miracles for our ancestors” we can truly focus on the great miracle that is American Judaism.

Sure, it is difficult at times to be a Jew in America, especially an observant Jew. Of course there is a part of me that doesn't want to navigate this Thanksgiving table, asking my beloved family the origin of every dish presented. Sometimes I really wish that everyone just kept kosher to my standard, that the family would gather after this American holiday meal and recite Birkat Hamazon together (this year with al hanisim! gevalt!), that we would take advantage of the minyan present to pray mincha and maariv. There is, in all honesty, a part of me that sees in the gastronomic diversity of this table a smack in the face to everything I stand for and to which I have devoted my life.

Yet my love for those around the table knows no bounds, and I know that in those feelings of frustration lies the root of the strength of my faith. This table is a reminder that I am living the Jewish life I choose because I had the opportunity to choose it. How striking it is that this experience is only made possible by living in galut, in exile.

This year, in that moment of candle lighting when we bless the Holy One “who made miracles for our ancestors,” I am going to focus on the miracle that is the Thanksgiving table from which we just rose. That table taught me about devotion to God and family, past and present, my people and myself.

Rabbi Jonah Geffen is the Rabbinic Director at J Street. Follow him on Twitter @JonahGeffen.

A traditional Thanksgiving dinner. You can get it in Tel Aviv, too.Credit: Dreamstime

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