While many Jews are baffled by the fall Jewish harvest thanksgiving festivals, which include Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, we mark the American celebration of Thanksgiving with gusto. Here is one national holiday that has no religious overtones that make us feel excluded. Jews joyfully partake of all Thanksgiving “fixins” from turkey (or tofu) to taters; pumpkins to parades.
In reality, Thanksgiving should be considered a uniquely Jewish festival. The first Pilgrim harvest celebrations in Plymouth, Massachusetts, were modeled on the biblical, Jewish harvest festivals of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot. And, the earliest Thanksgiving feasts took place in July.
It was President George Washington who moved Thanksgiving to autumn, writing, “I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation.”
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the proclamation to make Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated the last Thursday of November. But merchants, hoping to expand the Christmas shopping season commencing on Thanksgiving, convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to change the date to the second to last Thursday in November. This move added an extra week of shopping and also explains why the annual Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade concludes with a waving Santa welcoming the official start of the so-called “Christmas” shopping frenzy.
For Temple Beth Or, Thanksgiving has long been a festival of outreach to the local interfaith community. In 1988, our own religious committee chair, Steven Alexander, initiated south Dayton’s first annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service with neighboring churches at our synagogue. Since that time, our celebration has grown to include the Muslim community as well. This year, Temple Beth Or is the proud host of our 32nd Interfaith Thanksgiving gathering. We hope that as many of you as possible will attend, volunteer, and give thanks for our strong Dayton interfaith friendships and ties. (Volunteer opportunities are found inside this issue of the Light on page 8).
Whether Thanksgiving is seen as a secular American holiday, the jump-off point for winter shopping (don’t forget our December 8th Artisan Fair!), or a uniquely Jewish holiday, the fact is that the term “Jew” comes from the Hebrew name Yehudah which means to give thanks. As such, Jews should fully embrace every opportunity to give thanks for our blessings and bounty.