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Is Thanksgiving a Jewish Holiday?

The other day my mom was discussing Thanksgiving plans with a few of her coworkers, when one of them turned to her. “I hope you don’t mind my asking,” he said, “but do Jews celebrate Thanksgiving the same day as everyone else?”

She responded, “We celebrate it on Friday, because turkeys are cheaper if you buy them the next day.”

When I heard this story, my first reaction was to laugh, not only at the ridiculous question, but also at my mom’s zinger. Isn’t Thanksgiving is supposed to be about being an American before anything else, forgetting our differences, and enjoying the universal pleasures of good food and good company?

With a growing awareness of religious and cultural diversity (we’re entering the season of the “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” debate), the question posed to my mom has a strange, if misguided, logic to it. As I thought more about the bewildering exchange I began to wonder: is there such a thing as a Jewish Thanksgiving?

Sally Friedman wrote recently in the New York Times about growing up in an Eastern European immigrant community that never did Thanksgiving. As a child, she longed to celebrate the holiday like everyone else:

It embarrassed me that we had no connection to those Norman Rockwellian families with blond, rosy-cheeked children whose holiday tables glistened with perfect china and whose plates were filled with foods we never saw or tasted.

How I yearned for some observance of this quintessential American holiday. But it would be a while before I could do anything constructive about it.

Friedman’s idea of Jewish Thanksgiving involves distancing herself from her Jewish roots, but her eagerness to assimilate reveals the mindset of an older generation. Today, as identities become more multifaceted, shouldn’t Thanksgiving express both our American-ness and our individual cultural backgrounds and histories?

Sukkot, the fall harvest holiday, is the official Jewish Thanksgiving and also inspired the Old Testament-loving Puritans to create the holiday we know today. Despite this, the Ultra-Orthodox shun Thanksgiving completely as too secular; Jewish identity and observance trump any ties to country.

For some, Jewish Thanksgiving could have a social justice twist by taking time to help those in need. You could also argue that the Jewish thing to do is abstain entirely as a reminder of the holiday’s troubling history. As we remember what our own relatives went through to come to America, why not spark a discussion at the Thanksgiving table about America’s current immigration policies?

I plan to take a more traditional approach, and spend the holiday enjoying a meal featuring a kosher turkey, my Sephardic great grandmother’s noodle recipe, and maybe a bracha or two. And we’ll be celebrating on Thursday, like everyone else.

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