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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.