"What is the holiday most celebrated by American Jews?" Micah Halpern asked in a recent story in The Jerusalem Post. The answer is Thanksgiving, which the author essentially declared to be the definitive secular Jewish-American holiday.
His reasoning is that, as a relatively recent immigrant group, Jews were eager to seize on Thanksgiving, perhaps the most American of holidays. It is, as Halpern points out, an especially appealing holiday for Jews because it is based around family and food, although this is hardly unique to Jewish celebration.
There was a story making the rounds a last year that Obama was considering changing Thanksgiving to "Celebrate Immigrants Day." The story was nonsense, but I think it accidentally puts a finger on why new Jewish immigrants to America appreciated the holiday. Because Thanksgiving is already Celebrate Immigrants Day, in that it revisits the immigration of European Pilgrim settlers to the American continent.
The foods we eat on the holiday borrow from something called the Columbian Exchange, which was the mutual transfer of culture and technology between Europeans and Native Americans after Columbus. There is, as an example, the turkey, a bird native to the Americas, which is cooked with the old world herb sage. There is an English festival food, cranberry sauce, alongside indigenous American potatoes and squashes.
And what is the story we tell but of refugee migrants coming to America only to be fed by the locals at their moment of need? Jews know the experience of the refugee migrant, and it may have been comforting to discover this story is so essential to the American experience. What were we, if not a recent iteration of a story taking place on American shores since the days of the Pilgrims?
One of the great qualities of holidays is that they tend to be so plastic, so malleable. What is Christmas? It can be an orgy of consumerism, a collection of delightful folk rituals, a religious event, or all of these at once.
Thanksgiving can be any number of holidays. It can be based around football, or "Mystery Science Theater" marathons (or, when I was younger, "Twilight Zone" marathons). It can be an intimate dinner between friends, a sprawling family affair, or, in one instance I have been to, a gathering of regional expatriates with nowhere else to go.
Ward heelers used to pass out turkeys on Thanksgiving to gin up support for their party, and civic-minded citizens still give turkeys dinners to to the homeless on the holiday. And even the exact details of these dinners, and other Thanksgiving dinners, are flexible, largely influenced by regional and ethnic tastes. In cities with large Bavarian populations, you'll find sauerkraut as a staple. Some Mexican-Americans serve their turkey with mole, and some Ashkenazi Jews (including myself) have noodle kugel with their dinners.
Given this flexibility, I'd like to suggest that we take the implicit subject of the Thanksgiving, that of native-born Americans welcoming refugee migrants, and make it a little more explicit. Jews do have a history of making this link -- going through past newspapers, I find repeated stories of Jews using Thanksgiving as a time to solicit donations for the assistance of Jewish refugees overseas.
In 1921, as an example, the American Jewish Relief Committee, as reported by New York's Jewish Daily News, made a Thanksgiving appeal for the "thousands of destitute Jews in Eastern Europe." The article beseeches: "It is not one child, not one refugee, not one widow but tens of thousands whose wants are still unsupplied."
I also found a 1938 Thanksgiving prayer, written by 16-year-old Martin Marden of the Bronx, a Jewish refugee from Germany. His prayer was published in newspapers throughout the United States, and his words specifically address the refugee experience. Here is an abbreviated version of his prayer:
One day of the year should be reserved for prayers of thanksgiving in which we give thanks for something that has been granted us; for having been saved from some great destruction caused by nature or man.
I am thankful I love in a land where, regardless of race, everyone may take part in national ceremonies.
I am thankful I live in a land where a person may sing the national anthem without having someone tell him he may not because of his race.
I am thankful I live in a country governed by democracy rather than force.
I am thankful I live in a land where one is not persecuted.
I am thankful I live in a land where there are people who have real sympathy for refugees from European countries who have gone through horrible experiences.
I am thankful I shall be able to realize my ambitions which would have been impossible had I remained in my native land.
I am thankful I live in a land where the youth of all races have a tomorrow, rather than in my native land, where the youth of the race is without a tomorrow.
I am thankful I am happy and free.
What happened to Martin Marden? He enlisted in the Army in 1940 at age 18 and served as an interrogator and interpreter in Europe during the second World War, and continued his military service in Korea and Vietnam, achieving the rank of Colonel. This is not uncommon -- nowadays, about 8,000 non-citizens enlist in the Armed Forces, and 65,000 immigrants (including non-citizens) are on active duty, representing about 5 percent of all active duty personnel.
I am going to try to keep the refugee experience in mind this year for Thanksgiving. I have donated to the International Institute of Minnesota, which assists in refugee resettlement locally, among many other services, with Martin Marden listed as the honoree. Along with kugel, I may also make a carrot and sweet potato tzimmes, to add a little more of the flavor of the Ashkenazi refugee to my dinner table. And I think I will read Marden's prayer out loud.
Actually, I think I will read it out loud at Thanksgiving from here on out.