Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving

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19 Nov 2018

One day last week, sitting in Starbucks with my laptop, I started to notice the background music was different from usual. As song after song reflected the same theme, I wondered if I should check my calendar – wasn’t it too early to start this playlist?

Being Jewish in America during the, ahem, “holiday season,” can be a little frustrating in a lot of ways. While I do enjoy some of the jokes made possible by having married into the last name “Rudolph,” it’s really not pleasant to be overwhelmed by holidays which are not one’s own.

From October (or, you know, July, because everything keeps starting earlier!), when the stores and yards begin to feature skeletons and cobwebs and witches, to (apparently) the beginning of November, when all that orange and black begins turning to red and green, musty fake gravestones replaced by sparkles and snowflakes and angel figurines, and all through December – it’s everywhere.

Soon enough, cashiers will start offering well-intentioned holiday wishes as a matter of course, and we’ll have to decide whether to correct them (and how to do so graciously), or whether to simply smile and say “thank you, you too!”

I want to be friendly, but I don’t want to imply that I’m part of their celebrations. I want to stand tall in my Jewish pride and remind the world around me that I’m different and that’s great.

It can all be kind of exhausting.

Fortunately, nestled in between these displays is one holiday I can relate to, alongside everyone else in the supermarkets and Starbucks and the rest of the country. Aside from any questions of the halachic status of turkey or the halachic advisability of its particular consumption as an annual “ritual,” I think most of us can appreciate the basic idea of “giving thanks.” And I like having that in common with those around me, even as I am reminded before, during, and after of how much divides us.

Precedent for sharing this basic value, and even for appreciating the fact that we share it, can be found in Bereishit Rabbah 13:6:

עוֹבֵד כּוֹכָבִים אֶחָד שָׁאַל אֶת רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן קָרְחָה; אָמַר לוֹ: “אַתֶּם יֵשׁ לָכֶם מוֹעֲדוֹת, וְאָנוּ יֵשׁ לָנוּ מוֹעֲדוֹת. בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁאַתֶּם שְׂמֵחִים, אֵין אָנוּ שְׂמֵחִים; וּבְשָׁעָה שֶׁאָנוּ שְׂמֵחִים, אֵין אַתֶּם שְׂמֵחִים. וְאֵימָתַי אָנוּ וְאַתֶּם שְׂמֵחִים?” “בִּירִידַת גְּשָׁמִים.”

A certain idolater asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha, “You have holidays and we have holidays. When you are rejoicing, we are not rejoicing; and when we are rejoicing, you are not rejoicing. When do we and you rejoice?” [He answered] “When the rains fall.”

One reason this passage struck me when I came across it years ago is that, while Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha doesn’t open the conversation, he also doesn’t object to the basic premise of the idolater’s question – namely, that it’s worth seeking out a time of shared rejoicing. He doesn’t respond, “Well, we’re totally different, so why would you expect there to be a time when we and you rejoice?” The midrash implies there is value in our similarities as well as in our differences; it highlights the deep divides between our differing faiths and practices, but also actively seeks out a celebration we can share.

And what is that common occasion for celebration? We can all rejoice when the rains fall. What we have in common is our basic humanity, and the necessities and emotions that accompany that humanity. Some basic human needs transcend faith and religious practice – like the physical sustenance which depends on the falling rains and which is exactly what Thanksgiving celebrates. The gratitude and joy we feel when those needs are fulfilled might be directed in different directions – I can only imagine that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha and the idolater expressed their joy differently – but the basic human reaction is the same.

Since becoming a parent, I often think about things through my kids’ eyes more than my own. I think about how it must feel to them, as they gradually exit their shul-and-day-school bubble to become increasingly aware of their minority status in this world, surrounded on all sides by people who not only share something we don’t, but often don’t even know enough about us to know this difference. (My mother was once asked by a coworker, “I know Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, so when do you celebrate the birth of J—-?”)

I like being able to tell my kids that Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday but also doesn’t have to be “not Jewish” – because gratitude for the things we all need is a value we can all share.

My family doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, exactly, though we do take the opportunity to get together with relatives when we can, and I look forward to a turkey dinner this year with my sisters and their families. But even if we never ate turkey on Thanksgiving, I would still appreciate the day for the opportunity it provides to acknowledge what unites all of us as humans, and even to rejoice in it.

When a cashier wishes me a “happy Halloween” or a “merry Christmas,” I might bristle. I’m deeply aware that these are the times of others’ rejoicing, not mine. And when I’m preparing for the momentous occasions of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, or in the throes of Chanukah festivities, I know that many people I encounter in this country have no idea there’s anything special going on.

Thinking about Chanukah and Thanksgiving in the same breath is a little bit ironic (as I noticed especially several years ago, when they converged and everyone was talking about “Thanksgivukkah”). Chanukah commemorates Jewish resistance to non-Jewish influences, and non-Jewish influence is exactly why some object to Thanksgiving celebrations. But it seems like we should be able to simultaneously strengthen our own Jewish identities and also share our (Jewish) value of gratitude with our neighbors, though the date has no inherent meaning for us. I can’t help thinking Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha, who apparently approved of acknowledging our similarities as well as our differences, would also approve of our finding an occasion on which Jew and non-Jew alike can rejoice in G-d’s bounty.

And especially in times of heightened awareness of anti-Semitism around us, I can’t help thinking that we need the times we can all rejoice – the times and the needs and the values that bring us together and remind us of our shared humanity – alongside everything that divides us and maintains our differences.

So when I’m in the supermarket this week, with anticipation and turkeys and cranberries in the air, and a fellow shopper drops a friendly comment about Thanksgiving dinner, families, travel nightmares – all the standard holiday themes – I get to respond in kind, from shared experience. When the cashier wishes me a “happy Thanksgiving,” I get to smile with a full heart and, without inner turmoil, say “Thank you. You too!”

On December 25, others will rejoice and we will not. On Chanukah, we will rejoice and they will not. But on Thanksgiving, maybe we can all rejoice: for the rains we all need, for those we love, and everything else each of us has to be grateful for.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through and

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.