Thanksgiving and the Jews, aka Yehudim, The Grateful Living
Rabbi Alyson Solomon
In Hebrew, Jews are called Yehudim. We are named after Judah, son of Leah. Judah was the fourth son of Leah and Jacob. He is the one who convinces his brothers to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites rather than kill him. Judah, while far from perfect, is again the peacemaker who pleads on Benjamin’s behalf right before Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. Yehudim, could be translated as “the grateful ones” or as one of my mentors says, the “grateful living,” not to be confused with the Grateful Dead (a fan from way back).
Before we dive into the tofurkey, turducken, turkey, or dal-thanksgiving of your dreams, a note of gratitude to you. Thank you for your generosity over the High Holidays. Your open hearts, honesty, and warm listening and sharing meant so much to me. I loved meeting the wider BCC community, hearing about your paths to BCC and your own Jewish journeys. I love the questions you asked during the Days of Awe, the stories about BCC you shared with me and lifting up our collective voices in prayer. As I said over the holidays, my study door is wide open. I’d love to meet with you and hear what you are doing with your one wild, precious year and how I can support your journey. Even if you live in Palm Springs or elsewhere beyond LA, email me and we can hop on Skype or meet for a tea – RabbiAlysonSolomon@BCC-la.org.
Now, a bit about the history of Thanksgiving and how it relates to Jews, drawing on research by my colleague Rabbi Van Lanckton. As you might be aware, “the first ‘American’ Thanksgiving was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, attended by 90 Native Americans and 50 English Pilgrim settlers.” This first Thanksgiving mirrored our Jewish Biblical holiday of Sukkot. It was a festival of thanks for the earth’s bounty and our harvest, sans the focus on turkey and the cornucopia in the middle of the table.
The Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving did not become an annual event until over 200 years later. When President George Washington wanted to mark the adoption of the Constitution and the establishment of a new government, on November 26, 1789, that he declared a day of thanksgiving and prayer. But Washington did not renew his declaration annually.
It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln fixed the last Thursday of each November as a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent [Ancestors].” After the Union triumphed, Thanksgiving Day became an even more significant observance in the northern states. In an effort to urge the southern states to celebrate Thanksgiving, Governor John W. Geary of Pennsylvania, in 1868, issued a proclamation that read in part:
Unto God our Creator we are indebted for life and all its blessings. It therefore becomes us at all times to render unto God the homage of grateful hearts . . .and I recommend that the people of this Commonwealth on [November 26th] refrain from their usual avocations and pursuits, and assemble at their chosen place of worship, to ‘praise the name of God and magnify God with thanksgiving.’
These words didn’t raise too many eyebrows, but Governor Geary went on to say “Let us thank God with Christian humility for health and prosperity,” … Let Pennsylvanians pray that “our paths through life may be directed by the example and instructions of the Redeemer, who died that we might enjoy the blessings which temporarily flow therefrom, and eternal life in the world to come.”
These were the words that raised a protest from Philadelphia’s rabbis who heard that Geary was trying to “apparently …exclude Israelites” from the celebration.
By 1868, Philadelphia’s Jewish population was among the largest in any American city. According to The Occident, the largest local paper, a week after Geary’s proclamation the “Hebrew Ministers” of Philadelphia “deemed it their duty” to draft a powerful petition in response. Their “solemn protest” was signed by all seven of the city’s rabbis, including Rabbi Sabato Morais, who later played a central role in establishing the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, and Rabbi Morris Jastrow, a Reform leader in Philadelphia. Regarding Geary’s choice of words, the rabbis–regardless of their affiliation–agreed that:
An [elected] official, chosen by a large constituency, as the guardian of inalienable rights, ought not to have evinced a spirit of exclusiveness. He should have remembered that the people he governs are not of one mind touching religious dogmas, and that by asking all to pray that ‘their paths through life may be directed by the example and instruction of the Redeemer’ . . . he casts reflections upon thousands, who hold a different creed from that which he avows.
The rabbis came down hard on Geary’s proclamation and Geary did not revoke his words. Pennsylvania officially celebrated a Christianized Thanksgiving that year. Today, while some still think of the Christian tones in Thanksgiving, in general it has become an American holiday, celebrated by all as a sign of freedom, good food and family.
So what does Thanksgiving mean to you, especially this year. What are you grateful for that is uplifting you this season?
As I mentioned, we Jews are called Yehudim, the Grateful Ones. Even with this complex history, as Yehudim, we might think of Thanksgiving as essentially a pop-up Sukkot, reminding us of our bounty, our lands and our harvest. After all, according to the Talmud, we are invited to offer 100 blessings of gratitude throughout each day!
Gratitude, our tradition tells us, is a practice, an attitude, a stand against the social drift towards cynicism and resignation. Gratitude doesn’t mean perfection, but it does mean aliveness.
This year, I’m particularly grateful to be with you at BCC. I am also grateful for my family and friends and the opportunity to go visit my family in Oregon over this holiday. As a family we will honor my father’s yahrzeit and my oldest brother’s birthday, and we will celebrate being together, alive, during this autumn season.
I look forward to celebrating Hanukkah with you and bringing this attitude of gratitude into our Festival of Lights, honoring BCC’s Cantor Porat and celebrating the resiliency and promise of what it means to be an international community of Jews and all people, grateful to be alive for this season. May gratitude guide our days and keep us going with gusto.
Rabbi Alyson Solomon