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How American Jews Adopted—and Adapted—Thanksgiving

Special synagogue services may be a thing of the past but otherwise observing the holiday helped Jews feel like at one with the turkey-loving nation

Jenna Weissman Joselit
November 22, 2017
Photo: Ken Kanouse/Flickr
Photo: Ken Kanouse/Flickr
Photo: Ken Kanouse/Flickr
Photo: Ken Kanouse/Flickr

A succession of turkeys parades before me. Beribboned rather than trussed, one pulls a wagon, a second sits in a baby carriage, while a pair of them takes a stroll in the company of Lady Liberty. These creatures are not real, of course. They have never roamed the yard or rested atop a platter. Instead, they grace Thanksgiving greeting cards, the sending of which became a popular pastime beginning in the late 19th century and continued well into the postwar era.

The text that accompanied the “national bird of thankfulness” as it made its rounds, blissfully unaware of the fate that awaited, was equally affable and good-natured. “Happy Thanksgiving,” greeting cards declared; have a “cordial holiday.” And “best wishes.” There’s nothing here that was the least bit off-putting, nothing that might give Jews pause—or a reason not to mark the occasion.

No sooner had it become a national holiday than America’s Jews took to its growing repertoire of rituals with gusto. Thanksgiving was a day in which “all classes and masses participated and delivered the same Yankee Doodle with slight variations,” observed one San Francisco Jew in 1884. Much like their neighbors, America’s Jewish citizens prepared a sumptuous repast at home and saw to it that the underprivileged among them, especially those of their coreligionists in orphanages and old-age homes, were treated to a turkey with all the trimmings. They even went to shul—or, more precisely still, to temple.

Houses of worship throughout the land kept open their doors on the Thursday of Thanksgiving, holding a formal service in celebration. America’s Jews followed suit, prompting one of their number to observe as early as 1864 that “our coreligionists were second-to-none in honoring the day” in this manner. Usually held at either 11 in the morning or at 2 or 3 p.m.—just in time for mincha—the proceedings entailed the recitation of prayers, “paeans of praise,” as well as a sermon extolling America’s beneficence. Sometimes, in the expansive spirit of the day, Jews and Christians would hold a joint service. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, in November 1879, for instance, a local congregation of Jews got together for an hour or so with the Unitarians on “national turkey day,” while in Philadelphia several years later, a local Protestant minister occupied the pulpit of Mickve Israel and delivered an address.

Focusing on what they had in common rather than on the “doctrinal points” that kept them apart and at arm’s length from one another, America’s clergy and congregants alike seized the opportunity to strengthen the bonds of neighborliness and to “set the seal of religion upon [their] patriotic emotions.” In the process, they also sought to demonstrate that the “national religion is not Christianity—but whatever each American professes for himself,” or so optimistically related the Jewish Messenger in 1873.

Before long, though, Thanksgiving Day services lost their luster. By the 1880s, the dwindling number of Jews in the pews was sufficiently pronounced to warrant public discussion. From coast to coast, from San Francisco to New York, American Jewish newspapers reported that attendance had become “perfunctory,” “unpopular,” “slim,” and “sparse,” and the people downright “indifferent.”

Some among them might have stayed away because they had grown weary of platitudinous, plodding sermons. These kinds of speeches are “getting too old, too stale, too much behind the times,” related the American Israelite in 1884, adding for good measure that the “people have had enough of freedom, glorious country…and praising God for discovering” it. Other American Jews probably had less-exalted reasons for their absence from synagogue: On their day off from work, they preferred to relax at home or to spend their leisure time more profitably engaged in fussing over the food.

Still others, I suspect, stayed away in protest, lest the religious features of Thanksgiving increasingly swallow up its more anodyne attributes. Bristling at God-centered proclamations that emanated from the White House or the Governor’s Mansion, some American Jews believed they came a bit too close for comfort to violating the First Amendment. At the very least, official declarations with their pious allusions to the Almighty seemed “meddlesome.” As the American Israelite would have it, “we do not believe that it belongs to the constitutional functions of the president of the United States to proclaim or ordain any national fast or feast day, especially of a religious character. It is in our estimation an improper assumption of a power not granted by the constitution.”

Divine services and official proclamations were one thing; festive meals quite another. When it came to feeding one’s stomach on national turkey day, there was no declension, no “backsliders here—full attendance everywhere.” Even the most scrupulous of kosher-keeping American Jews could enjoy a heaping portion of turkey and spoonfuls of cranberry sauce, the recipes for which filled the pages of Jewish newspapers of the late 19th century. True, mashed potatoes might be out of bounds because of the cream and butter used to make them fluffy, and oyster stuffing was clearly a no-go, but tasty substitutes that in no way compromised the traditional bill of fare were at hand and within easy reach on the dinner table.

The accessibility of the Thanksgiving menu, coupled with the holiday’s rhetoric, underscored what historian Jonathan Sarna has called the “cult of synthesis,” a sensibility that empowered American Jews to feel one with the nation. Stressing the consonance between Jewish and American values, it also enlisted biblical precedents for various national rituals such as Thanksgiving. The origins of that holiday, declared the devotees of the cult of synthesis, could be traced further back than Abraham Lincoln or even the Pilgrims to the Bible where the “setting apart of Thanksgiving has always been the custom of the Jewish people,” referring to Sukkot and other moments on the Jewish ritual calendar.

Little wonder, then, the autumnal festival took hold. As one American Jewish observer put it way back in 1879, mixing his ornithological metaphors, “our people take as naturally to Thanksgiving…as a duck takes to a pond.”

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.