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What’s Jewish about Thanksgiving?

By Steve Albert

When I was a growing up, my paternal grandmother, Flora Albert, was the most religiously
observant woman I knew. She was born as Blumia Mandelbaum and raised in Kolomea, an
Austrian city in Galicia (now part of Ukraine) in which about 50% of the population was Jewish. (The photo above this blog post shows the Great Synagogue of Kolomea as it stood early in the 20th Century.) Following World War I, she came to America, with her mother and brother, to join her father, who had immigrated to Newark, NJ several years earlier. Like most Eastern European Jewish immigrants, they arrived in New York, and went through Ellis Island. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet – and the incredibly extensive archives of Ellis Island - I know that she arrived in the U.S. on November 14, 1920 at the age of 13, on the ship “President Grant,” having departed Europe from Trieste, Italy. Six days later, on November 20,1920, she celebrated her first Thanksgiving.

I have a lot of childhood memories of celebrating holidays with my grandmother and in her home. In particular, I remember many Shabbat celebrations and Passover seders. But mostly, I remember Thanksgiving. While I don’t know for certain, I suspect that Thanksgiving was my grandmother’s favorite holiday, and I’ve often wondered about the special appeal of
Thanksgiving to my Jewishly observant grandmother. What, if anything, might be Jewish about Thanksgiving?

According to Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer, the answer to that question is, “Lots!” Acccording to Rabbi Eisenkramer, “many people believe that the Pilgrims modeled Thanksgiving after the holiday of Sukkot.” Both are fall harvest festivals, and the Puritans would have known about Sukkot from the Bible. Sukkot is known as both “chag ha’asif,” or “the Festival of Ingathering,” and “z’man simchateinu,” or “the time of rejoicing,” both themes that are closely reflected in Thanksgiving. The Puritans viewed their journey to America as analogous to the exodus from Egypt so there may, in fact, be some validity to this theory.

Rabbi Elias Lieberman agrees, noting that “it is likely that [the Pilgrims] consciously drew on a model well-known to them from the Bible they cherished. Seeing themselves as new Israelites in a new ‘promised land,’ the Pilgrims surely found inspiration in the Bible…in which God commands the ancient Israelites to observe…Sukkot.”

Even if this theory is incorrect, however, Rabbi Eisenkramer argues that there is still a great
deal about Thanksgiving that is Jewish. “Saying ‘thank you,’” he notes, “is a primary Jewish
value.” This is evident in many ways, such as the rabbinical teaching that Jews are to say 100 blessings each day. According to Rabbi Eisenkramer, “This teaching reminds us that no matter how difficult life can be, we all have many blessings such as simply being alive, our health, our loved ones, and friends.”

Of the connection between Sukkot and Thanksgiving, Rabbi Lieberman goes on to say, “Both of these splendid holidays encourage us to stop and acknowledge the manifold blessings God bestows upon us each and every day. Whether we accomplish that stock-taking over a slice of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie or beneath the leafy branches of a sukkah roof – or both – we understand and embrace the impulse which inspired our Pilgrim and our Israelite ancestors.” 

All that said, I don’t think that my grandmother’s fondness for Thanksgiving had anything to do with Puritan reinterpretations of the holiday of Sukkot or rabbinical teachings. She simply loved the opportunity to bring together her family and knew that she had much to be thankful for.

Best wishes for a very happy Thanksgiving.

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