A rare occasion when turkey meets latke
The American melting pot warms two favorite holidays
Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday because it brings families and friends together for the simple purpose of giving thanks and being together. The holiday commemorates the tales of our forefathers as we rejoice with loved ones and catch up with the family gossip. The kids learn how we called the first Americans “Indians” because the first Europeans on these shores thought they had landed in India, and expected to trade for jewels, silks and spices. Instead, they found natives who didn’t have the wheel or a written language. The earliest forefathers who landed at Plymouth seeking religious freedom were considerably less materialistic than the Spanish conquistadors to the south, and not nearly as dour in dark clothes as depicted in textbooks. Their clothes came in many colors as bright as the diverse threads, beads and feathers worn by the Indians who greeted them. Gov. William Bradford even had a red suit and purple cape (for special occasions, no doubt). The early Plymouth settlers lived by the Book and endured a life of hardship to work and worship as they pleased. But they brewed beer, and hunted and fished for pleasure as well as food.
Between their first feast of wild turkeys shot with guns they brought with them from Europe and today’s mass-produced, store-bought birds served with sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, there’s a long history of immigrants seeking freedom from prejudice and opportunities for a better future. The holiday celebrates the new life in the New World and its abundance, as well as the conflicts that drive history. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first day to give thanks in the midst of the Civil War, which defines us as a nation.
This year Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday for Jews, bumps into Thanksgiving and expands a multicultural celebration. The highlight of Hanukkah is the lighting of a menorah, with candles for eight days as a reminder of a miracle in the second century B.C., when a lamp in the restored temple in Jerusalem with just enough oil to burn for the night burned for eight days.
By some estimates, Hanukkah, based on the lunar calendar, and Thanksgiving will not fall together again for 75,000 years. There are all kinds of suggestions for fusing the symbols for once in a lot of lifetimes. Some suggest shaping the menorah into a turkey, surrounded by pumpkin latkes, not of potatoes, and even calling the holiday
Some of the secular among us want to emphasize America’s flaws, the treatment of the Indians, scolding the Founding Fathers, who, after all, owned slaves, and making it a day not of celebration, but a day of collective shame. They’re oblivious to the gifts of those Founding Fathers, who wrote a Constitution that enables us to right wrongs and to rise above past faults and injustice to welcome the new waves of newcomers in search of a better life. Nearly everyone has a story to tell. When my parents bought a house in the nation’s capital in 1946, they were told there was an old and no longer valid covenant in the deed prohibiting the sale of the house to Jews. When my parents moved in, their neighbors, with not a Jew among them, brought over homemade pies and cakes to welcome them.
If my grandfather had stayed in Lithuania, his entire family would likely have been killed by the Nazis. He never forgot that America had taken in his family, six children and a seventh was born here, and how they prospered.
When I was a little girl, my grandfather gave me a silver dollar each night of Hanukkah. One year, he gave me a menorah shaped like the six-pointed Jewish star with small tiny electric bulbs. He told me to turn it on when I recited my prayer over the lights.
I was horrified that it would replace my grandmother’s graceful antique brass menorah with its tiny delicate candles, but I never let on. He was so proud of his gift, and particularly because it was “made in America.” I knew nothing of the old world he had left behind and how a menorah with electric lights meant freedom and prosperity to him. He knew his adopted country wasn’t perfect and that it hadn’t taken in all the Jews who were trying to escape the Holocaust. He knew that antiSemitism might once have kept his daughter out of the neighborhood where she wanted to live. But he also understood how his adopted country worked to right its wrongs.
Every night of Hanukkah during this Thanksgiving season, I will turn on an electric bulb, rather than light a candle, and give thanks for being here. So America isn’t perfect, but it’s perfect enough for me. Happy Thanksgivukkah.