Why I am ambivalent about Thanksgiving

Why I am ambivalent about Thanksgiving

Everyone, or almost everyone, loves Thanksgiving. They look forward to it, spend a lot of time preparing for it, and do their best to enjoy it when it comes.

For me, though, Thanksgiving is a day of mixed emotions.

I know how I should feel. Thanksgiving, after all, has Jewish roots, as this column has detailed in the past. It was a day originally set aside to thank God for providing people with a land in which religious observance went hand in hand with religious tolerance and religious freedom.

The Puritans were well versed in what they called the “Hebrew Bible.” Here they were in their promised land, these Puritans of Plymouth, free of the shackles imposed on their beliefs by the Church of England, able to worship God the way they wanted—and now God had blessed them with a bountiful harvest.

It was the year 1621, and they did what the Hebrew Bible ordained for another people in their promised land—they held a solemn festival of thanksgiving. They celebrated their version of Sukkot, not in November, but at about the same time in early fall when Jews elsewhere were celebrating Sukkot.

Just as Sukkot thanked God for freeing us from the bondage of Egypt, so the first Thanksgiving thanked God for freeing the Puritans from the bondage of England.

Just as Sukkot thanked God for the Land of Israel’s completed harvest, so the first Thanksgiving thanked God for Plymouth’s completed harvest.

That is how Thanksgiving began, and almost from the beginning of Jewish life here, celebrating “the secular Sukkot” came quite naturally to us, for good reason. This “Golden Land” gave us the chance to start over, away from the established hatreds and bigotries of the Old World.

Consider one example: In 1753, the British Parliament passed the Jewish Naturalization Bill, which was meant to end anti-Semitic discrimination in England by allowing Jews (even those emigrating from foreign lands) to become citizens, Jews by then being an increasingly important economic force there. Within a few months, Parliament was forced to rescind the new law, so virulent were the anti-government riots that broke out because of “the Jew Bill.” The archbishop of Canterbury, who supported the law, even expressed his fear that “in a little time, [the Jews] will be massacred.”

America was different. It meant freedom for us—freedom to work at whatever job or profession we chose, freedom to worship wherever and however we chose, freedom to exercise the rights of citizenship as fully as anyone else.

It was not always easy. As new colonies opened for business, their founders brought with them the trappings of intolerance that existed in their homelands. In the Catholic-founded colony of Maryland, for example, not to believe in Jesus was a crime punishable by death. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a Jewish man was tried in 1688 for the crime of riding a horse through town on a Sunday, the Christian Sabbath.

The need to build a new land got in the way of much of that, though, and Jews were able to overcome much of the intolerance they encountered.

In many ways, the new world was heaven-sent for Jews, and a special day of thanksgiving for that alone was only natural. So I should be happy that Thanksgiving comes around each year.

And yet, I am ambivalent.

One reason is my view that while America has been good for Jews, it has not necessarily been good for Judaism. We so succeeded in becoming a part of the great melting pot that not only did we reduce Judaism to a mere religion, we subjected it to the strong sense of individualism that America breeds so well.

I will return to this below.

Another reason for my ambivalence is that what Thanksgiving is supposed to be about is overshadowed by what Thanksgiving has become: the opening bell in a season of bells—Christmas bells. Christmas songs blare in elevators, in hallways, in supermarkets, in shopping malls. Christmas decorations already are everywhere. Radio and television already are filled with Christmas this and Christmas that.

The message is obvious. Christmas is the norm here. Government does not shut down on Passover, or Ramadan. It does shut down for Christmas, ostensibly because most of its employees are Christians. They have a right to their observances, of course, just as we have a right to ours. Only, until recently, that right was denied us, and I know of at least one case in 2021 where it was still denied despite the law.

It is not easy to swallow all these Christmas trappings if you are a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist—or anything but Christian. Erecting giant Chanukah menorahs in public spaces does not ameliorate that, besides it being antithetical to what Chanukah is about.

Christmas makes clear that this is a Christian country, no matter what the Constitution says. As free as we are, come the lead-up to Thanksgiving with its intentional lead-in to Christmas, and we realize that we remain outsiders.

Thanksgiving, though, is not supposed to be the opening act for Christmas. It is not for Christians, but for everyone. So what happened?

Commercialism happened. Some years ago, a reporter on WINS said, so matter-of-factly, that the “true sounds of Christmas” were the clinking noises made by busy cash registers. Christmas has become a profit-making venture and Thanksgiving and Black Friday are its starting points.

I am bothered by Thanksgiving for yet another reason, as well—because it has become a symbol of the watering down of values in America. (This was the subject of my podcast last week.) Thanksgiving exists today only to pave the way for the devaluation of Christmas, a day that should be filled with religious significance for a majority of Americans, but whose most enduring symbols are bulging stockings and a flying sled with expensive goodies meant to be stuffed into those stockings or placed under a once-living brightly lit tree.

There is nothing religious about another Barbie doll.

The devaluation of Christmas, in turn, has brought about the devaluation of all religion in America, and that has helped bring about a devaluation of traditional values we so desperately need.

It is this devaluation that enabled too many of us to devalue Judaism, bringing it down from a mission-based ethnic identity of which religion was a byproduct to only a religion; and then to devalue that religion into a chaotic system in which the individual decides what will be observed and what will be ignored.

That brings me to whether America has been as good to Judaism as it has been to Jews. Of course, America has been really good for the Jews. Where else in the world until America’s founding, and when else in world history until then (except, perhaps, in Muslim Spain), did we as a people thrive the way we did here, lately even reaching to the highest heights?

Two recent presidents (Bill Clinton and Donald Trump) and the current one, President Joe Biden, have first-degree Jewish relatives. So does Vice President Kamala Harris, who is married to a Jew (she is known in her family as “Mamele Kamala”). Thirty-four Jewish notables now serve in top government positions, including in several cabinet posts and White House chief of staff. In 2000, an observant Jew (Joe Lieberman) won the popular vote to be vice president.

So, yes, America has been good for the Jews—but not necessarily for Judaism.

A year-old Pew Research Center survey estimates that as of 2020, Jews make up approximately 7.5 million people in the United States, including 5.8 million adults and 1.8 million children.

Overall, just over a quarter of these Jewish adults — 27 percent — do not identify with Judaism in any way. They consider themselves to be Jewish ethnically, culturally, or because they were born that way, but nothing more.

Among Jewish adults from 19 to 29, 40 percent describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” Most young people in this “Jews of no religion” group, as Pew labels them, also say they do not have much if anything in common with their peers who do identify with religion in some way.

Trends such as these bode ill for the Jewish future in the United States.

As for feeling free in America, three-quarters of the Jews surveyed say there is more anti-Semitism in the United States today than there was just five years ago — FBI statistics bear this out — and 53 percent say that as Jews, they feel less safe here than they did five years ago.

That is what makes me so ambivalent about Thanksgiving. I do not know whether we should stuff ourselves on the fourth Thursday of November, or whether we should be fasting on that day.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries.

His website is www.shammai.org.