As we prepared our Thanksgiving meal last week, my wife and I discussed whether to continue our quaint, though somewhat cliché, precedent of having each of our attendees, starting with our children, recount what they were thankful for. It takes a while to complete, while guests are salivating over the food on the table, and the answers are often trite (my family, the food and the latest toys they have). But in the end we decided to continue the tradition, and here’s why.
There are numerous Jewish holidays during the year, with many of them occurring during the fall, including Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year’s day), Yom Kippur (the day of Atonement), Sukkot (the festival of booths and the biblical antecedent to the pilgrims’ Thanksgiving celebration), and several others. These holidays reinforce Jewish values such as seeking forgiveness, celebrating nature and understanding our own humility before God and the world around us. And they also help my kids to understand what distinguishes us from other (or no) religions—Jewish holidays are filled with unique ritual practices and patterns of observance.
In contrast, most American holidays are historical or national, but not necessarily moral, especially as currently practiced. While the Fourth of July and Veterans’ Day might touch on patriotic nostalgia, they mostly serve as paid vacation days. Labor Day is better known for being the last party of the summer than for celebrating the sacrifices of laborers, let alone serving as a discourse for wage equity or other moral issues pertaining to work. But Thanksgiving is different. Though it, too, carries the historical resonance of that famous meal between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, its re-introduction by President Lincoln in 1863 served to highlight its function as a moral holiday. It is a day to commemorate our gratitude for the bounty we enjoy in our lives. It is a day for all Americans, religious and secular, to reflect upon and give thanks for our blessings. It is, more than any other national holiday, the one day when America celebrates moral values of gratitude and appreciation.
In this regard, Thanksgiving is special to me because it shows my children that the values of gratitude and appreciation are not just Jewish values but also American values. It reinforces an integration between being Jewish and being American—that my children don’t have to choose between the two because both Judaism and American civic traditions have a place for moral instruction and celebration. Thanksgiving helps enable my children to be Jewish-Americans, and comfortably so. So on this Thanksgiving 2012, as my family recounts what they are thankful for around our dining room table, I would like to offer my thanks for the wisdom and enduring significance of our Thanksgiving holiday.