Many people associate the concept of giving thanks with religion. Gratitude and thanksgiving are often promoted within religious contexts, but they are not exclusively religious — people who do not practice or profess any religion also find the idea of being grateful central to the human experience. I raise this in the context of Thanksgiving — a holiday that all Americans celebrate together regardless of religious identity or cultural differences.
The Jewish community has a particular connection to the Thanksgiving holiday. The Pilgrims patterned this harvest holiday of togetherness and gratitude after the Jewish festival of Sukkot (“Tabernacles” or “Booths”), which Jews celebrate in the autumn. Recalling the description of the festival from the Bible, the Pilgrims instituted a similar celebration of gratitude after their first harvest in the New World.
So, how do American Jews celebrate Thanksgiving?
I know that the answer may not be exciting, but the most common way is with turkey. For the most part, American Jews take this opportunity to celebrate their American-ness by eating the same foods that our friends and neighbors are eating. We spend time with our families, watch parades and football games, and take the time to give thanks for all that the United States has done for us.
Having just returned from buying a kosher turkey in Dallas, however, I feel I should point out that observing the kosher dietary laws adds a somewhat different dimension to Thanksgiving. Dallas is the nearest source of kosher meat, and although there are now two stores in the state of Oklahoma that carry any kind of kosher meat products at all, the limited selection has many Jews driving to Dallas or ordering meat online several times a year.
A kosher Thanksgiving meal would not involve, for example, both turkey and macaroni and cheese. Our family’s mashed potatoes use non-dairy margarine and soy milk, rather than butter and regular milk. Also, since it is the custom of many kosher-keeping American Jews to wait three hours between a meat meal and being able to eat dairy, our family eats our Thanksgiving meal at mid-day, and then we wait until late afternoon for our pie and whipped cream.
After we eat, there are Jewish prayers of thanks for the meal we have eaten. Birkat HaMazon, of “the Blessing of the Food,” is traditionally said after each time we break bread. We add Psalm 126 to the beginning of the prayers during the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. A great many American Jews add Psalm 126 to these prayers after our Thanksgiving meal, since it is a festive day for the American Jewish community — even though it is not a specifically Jewish holiday.
Finally, many American Jews enjoy a good Hebrew play-on-words during the Thanksgiving holiday. Psalm 136 includes the verse “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,” which is repeated in many different places, including several weekly Jewish prayers. The Hebrew word for “give thanks” is ho-doo. The Hebrew word ho-doo — spelled the same but accented differently — means “turkey.” So, give turkey to the Lord, for it is good!
ABBY JACOBSON is the rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue at 900 N.W. 47th St., Oklahoma City, serving Jews of the Conservative movement across central Oklahoma. Jacobson serves on the boards of the Interfaith Alliance and Interfaith Power and Light. To contact Jacobson, email her at email@example.com.