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A Very Tattler Thanksgiving

Why the most inclusive of celebrations should be every American Jew’s favorite holiday

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original images Shutterstock)

They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.

Passed down through generations of wisecracking uncles and joke-aggregation emails forwarded by that lady with the male-pattern baldness who plays tennis with your mom, it’s the standard template for nearly every Jewish holiday; an omnipresent reminder that, to paraphrase David Mamet, the world hates the Jews, the world has always done and will continue to do so, yet we will live to eat brisket another day.

There’s nothing wrong with this narrative—what could be more life-affirming than dodged annihilation followed up by acute gastrointestinal distress? The problem with celebrating Jewish holidays is that the celebrations themselves often are not very celebratory. The envy my non-Jewish friends felt for all the days of school I was allowed to miss at the beginning of the year dissipated when they realized those days were spent in synagogue. The feasting might be nice, but for the more than mildly observant, the multitude of prohibitions about how and when the meal can be cooked and consumed turns its very preparation into what seems like a particularly sadistic challenge from Top Chef. (PADMA: Your challenge is to make whatever you want for dinner, but you can’t turn the oven on, or buy anything that day, and you have to use 17 different sets of plates and make sure nothing that isn’t supposed to touch touches and you can’t mix milk with meat, including poultry, even though you can’t milk a chicken. Good luck! The meal also requires hours of prayers/being yelled at by your older relatives before it can commence.

Even the “fun” holidays have their issues. Simchat Torah = synagogue. Sukkot = manual labor, which in my house at least, rarely ended well. Purim… OK, Purim is a really good holiday. (Who doesn’t want to dress up like a princess and heckle an authority figure while blind drunk? I try to do it at least once a week.) And then there’s Hanukkah. Poor brave doomed little Hanukkah, ever the unflatteringly garbed bridesmaid to Christmas’s couture-bedecked supermodel bride. The honorable mention of holidays, the religious equivalent of that show Oprah did about the un-famous siblings of celebrities. Christmas is Meryl Streep; Hanukkah is Glenn Close.

Some say that the flash of holidays like Christmas is precisely the problem; that the large-scale commercialization of their holidays makes it impossible for us to appreciate ours. Proponents of this view include my mother, my father, and my husband.

But it’s the idea of “theirs” vs. “ours” that is the problem here. Religious holidays have their place, and that’s in the homes of the adherents of that religion. It’s when a religious holiday aims for a universality, that, by definition it cannot have, that we have a problem. No matter how much we spin Christmas as a “winter festival” with pagan origins, the first six letters of its name are impossible to shake, a proverbial nail through the palm.

If we are truly to be, as the president likes to say, one America, what we need—in fact, what we deserve—is a flashy, commercialized, inclusive, and fun holiday that people of all races, religions, and creeds can happily celebrate in all its gaudy, overblown glory. Not a Festivus for the rest of us, but a Jubilee … for all of … we. (I’m working on it. Bear with me.)

Which is why I would like to call upon every big-money donor out there to donate to my new SuperPAC: “Americans United Behind Thanksgiving As The New Christmas And Freedom.”

Think about it. American Jews, as Americans, already celebrate Thanksgiving, and it’s wonderful. It’s a nice long weekend and usually not too cold, there are no religious services of any kind required, and you get to start drinking and eating at 3:00 in the afternoon, which is always the time that everyone is hungriest anyway. Its message of thanks is easy to get behind. “We can’t have a tree because we don’t believe in Jesus,” my mother used to say to me, but it’s pretty hard to argue with being grateful that Grandma’s cataract surgery went so well or that they finally made a movie of Les Misérables.

But just imagine what it could be like if we really kicked it up a notch. What if we decked the halls with those autumnal wreaths you buy at the farmer’s market and stood gaping at department-store window displays depicting suffering pilgrims and audio-animatronic mannequins of Cher singing “Half-Breed”? Every living-room would be adorned with an enormous, fairy-light-bedecked cornucopia, or better yet, an enormous nest in which Thanksgiving Theo, an 8-foot-tall flying turkey, would “lay” his gifts during his midnight race across America. Planes, Trains & Automobiles—already one of the most Jewish movies ever made, given that it concerns the wanderings of a rootless stranger plagued by constant minor annoyances—would be the new It’s a Wonderful Life, and glorious, pine-scented Christmas would be demoted to the status of a scorned mistress, à la Fatal Attraction.

Of course, Thanksgiving has a major pop-culture deficit to make up for compared to other holidays, which is where our ingenuity as Jews comes in. We already wrote all the Christmas songs; now we have to do the Thanksgiving ones and make sappy films in which the phrase “It’s a Thanksgiving miracle” will be uttered no fewer than 32 times, and Marc Jacobs can design pilgrim-inspired holiday-wear for all the glamorous Thanksgiving parties we’ll have to attend all month long. It might take a generation, maybe more. But my fellow Americans, let us rise to the challenge. We can accomplish great things if we try. Fifty, even 100 years from now, if the Earth still exists, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren could be sitting around their plates of genetically altered poultry product and saying how thankful they were that the forefathers had the wisdom and tenacity to make a huge, costly production out of a holiday that in its essence, commemorates the essential immigrant experience of all Americans: We came here for freedom, we didn’t die, let’s eat. Nobody gets left out. Except the Native Americans.

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Poupic says:

Of curse it is exactly right! “US Jews” were once upon a time Jews.

You’re complaining that other people’s definition of our Jewish religious holidays doesn’t work for you. On the other hand, you make of your Jewish holidays what you make of them. Some of us believe that we, as Jews, are prior to our denominational affiliations and their particular ritual norms and limitations.

Don’t like Simchat Torah in a synagogue? Sukkot in a backyard? High Holy Days in a stuffy, dour shul? Good. Because there are many different types of Jewish communities out there, and they don’t all think the same way about our religious holidays or approach them in the same way.

For every boring Simchat Torah, misconnecting Sukkot, or sleepy-hungry High Holy Day, there’s another family or community experiencing things in a way that you might find more inspiring, more connecting, and more fulfilling. Which isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with the traditional interpretations that you don’t like. You obviously are making a value judgment about those interpretations in your post, but it isn’t a fair one. Just because you can’t find a way to connect with your own religious holidays doesn’t mean it’s the same for everyone.

In the same vein, just because you’ve found refuge from Jewish holidays in the entirely secular Thanksgiving (which isn’t a religious holiday for anyone), a blog post could easily be written about the dread that many, many American families feel about Thanksgiving. In fact, I’m sure many have. The grass is no greener on the Turkey Day side of things. Families around a table can be happy or grumpy, whether that holiday is Jewish or not.

Thanksgiving can be wonderful. Our Jewish holidays can be wonderful. There’s no need to make the experience of them mutually exclusive. But before you continue complaining about our Jewish holidays, maybe you ought to empower yourself to approach them in a way that best suits you, Rachel Sukert, and not some denominational idea of what should be meaningful to you. As a Jew, it’s your right to delve in and struggle with our tradition. What a lot of us forget is that it’s also your right to come up with a different answer.

Given, that, since what your obviously really searching for is permission to put up a tree, why not stop hiding behind Thanksgiving and just do it? Nothing says your ornaments have to be Christian. And considering how many Christians there are who affirm that Christmas has become a secular holiday in America, who are you, as a Jew, to disagree? Those issues are all yours, they don’t belong to Christmas.

And they don’t belong to our Jewish holidays, either.

Hello people!!! In 2013, the first day of Hanukkah IS Thanksgiving!! Are you ready for some mashed potato latkes with turkey gravy? Gobble Shin Nun Hey? Wrap your mind around this one by following me on twitter at @twitter-949719048:disqus

julis123 says:

This, to me, is a great example of the double standard of some segments of the American population What is Thanksgiving? It essentially celebrates the extermination of the Native Americans. Israel has exterminated no one, has always been ready for peace with it’s neighbors (and has signed an agreement with 2 of them), and the majority of the Jewish residents of Israel either lived there originally or were driven there form neighboring Arab countries. Despite this some Americans feel it necessary to preach to Israel about the Palestinian issue. Another example of this are the residents of Berkely CA,who are sitting in a settlement on land seized from Mexico in 1848 (not ancient history) in a trumped up war that caused widespread war and destruction. For some reason while I hear plenty of criticism of Israel from there I don’t hear anyone calling to return the South West to Mexico.

Great piece! I just wrote about something similar, without thinking about it in the larger context explored here. The Jewish holidays were depressing in my household for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it must have been painful for my parents to remember holidays celebrated with their parents in Vienna, the city they were forced to flee. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, allowed them to look forward to their new families. See: Thanksgiving: The Perfect Viennese Holiday: http://freudsbutcher.com/genealogy/thanksgiving-the-perfect-viennese-holiday/

OY! I don’t know where to begin. I am so tired of Jewish ignoramuses being given a pulpit to publish absolute nonsense, especially that which won’t ever happen. So rather than dissect it I’ll just say the following: Well, since Jews have and give Thanksgiving everyday – brachot before and after you eat ANYTHING, they have no worry. They don’t reserve it for one day a year. And Shabbat takes precedent over EVERYTHING! Anyway, why do Jews observe a not-Jewish day that celebrates the holocaust against Native Americans 500 years ago? Cognitive disonance, I suppose. And I mourn wherever and whatever represented itself as Jewish; it wasn’t and isn’t. If you ever want to find out how true Yiddishkeit ain’t what you’ve seen and experienced, let me know: rebmoish@gmail com. Remember: A mind is like a paracute. It only functions when it’s open.

Z_Lauren_Z says:

Um, they made a US version of Les Mis in 1998 (and one in the 50s) and there have been a few French versions as well . . .

Jacob Apple says:

“Except the Native Americans”.

I hope that last line actually means that your entire post was nothing more than a joke. I really hope so.

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A Very Tattler Thanksgiving

Why the most inclusive of celebrations should be every American Jew’s favorite holiday

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