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Here for the Holidays

Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday.

Thanksgiving is one of those gathering-the-family-together-from-all-around holidays. I love my family. I love the idea of family togetherness at the holidays. But let's face it; families are difficult. Families cause anxiety. Families come with complicated needs and conflicting expectations. Families can make you crazy. Especially at Thanksgiving, when you keep trying to remind yourself how important your family is to you.   

It's nearly Halloween, and I still don't know what my family will be doing for Thanksgiving this year. For several years we had a regular routine. My grandma and grandpa, my father's mother and stepfather, drove up from San Diego to San Francisco to visit with us for the holiday, while my father's father went to my aunt's house in San Diego. At Christmas, my father visited his dad in Fresno, and Grandma and Grandpa went to my aunt's, while my mother and I observed the ancient Jewish customs of Chinese food and a movie.

For a while this worked like clockwork, but now it's getting complicated. My grandparents are getting older and find driving more difficult. They also don't like to fly. Last year, my parents went to San Diego to be with them at the holiday, and I stayed home with my boyfriend. I felt guilty for not going to San Diego, and I'll probably feel guilty no matter what kind of arrangement we work out this year.

Now that Thanksgiving has become so hard to arrange for the family, I find that I'm starting to remember the years when my grandparents were younger and traveling was easier for them as a sort of golden age of the family. But I also remember how hard it was even then to meet everyone's needs and expectations.

In terms of culture and personality, my family contains a broad range of people. My Kansas-raised grandfather grew up with the expectation that on Thanksgiving the men gather in the living room and watch the football game, while the women gather in the kitchen and talk while the turkey roasts. Unfortunately, the only other man attending our Thanksgivings has been my father, whose Irish Catholic mother expected that he'd stay in the kitchen and talk to her. Meanwhile, my Jewish mom worried about her stepfather sitting by himself and made regular passes through the living room to check on his well-being. We were all usually a little tense as we tried to say the right thing at dinner and not give anyone else cause for offense, worry, stress, concern....

By the end of the day, we were pretty tired. For my family, and for the families of most people I know, Thanksgiving is not a restful holiday.

The National Jewish Population Survey for 2000-2001 may not seem to have a lot to do with my personal Thanksgiving crises, or those of anyone else, but actually, I have noticed some remarkable parallels. My family, as is true of the American Jewish population, is getting older. There are, it seems, fewer Jews than there used to be. The generation that's getting into its twenties and thirties is not having a lot of kids yet. Some things that used to define the way we saw ourselves--Yiddish-speaking immigrant childhoods in Brooklyn, the two-parent Jewish family, and a high degree of deference to the organized community--are less central now, and we can't quite define what will replace them. This sounds like a family and a community in transition to me. Not quite resigned to what we've lost, not quite sure of what we're gaining with the passing years.

Perhaps most importantly, the Population Survey, like the need to get everyone to a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving, seems to have served as a kind of focus for people's deepest anxieties about the Jewish family in America. Once again, we have conflicting needs and expectations. Everyone has an opinion. How can we fix the numbers? Should we try to get the partners of intermarried Jews to convert? (Lots of luck with my own sweetie, but you could give it a try.) Should we encourage young Jewish women to marry young and have lots of kids? Should we resign ourselves to a smaller community? What if we handed out free synagogue memberships? What if more of the kids went to Israel? Are we disappearing? Are the numbers correct? What if there are a million and a half Jews who never answer their phones? What if we asked the wrong questions?

I never took statistics in college, so I can't help with the raging argument about just how many Jews there are in America. And my opinion about who counts as a Jew is eclectic enough that it's probably no help to anyone. But I do have some advice for the American Jewish community this Thanksgiving, based on my own interfaith family and my personal concerns for the future: We need to accept our family as it is. There's very little choice.

If our population is aging, we need to take care of our elderly. If our children come from mixed families, we need to find ways to teach them about their Jewish heritage that honor their families and the choices their families have made.

We can argue endlessly about plans for the future. But just as my family isn't like the one sitting around the holiday table in an L.L. Bean catalog picture... healthy, present, all content... our Jewish community is not like an L.L. Bean catalog picture where the future is always the same as the (suddenly nostalgic) past. We'll do what families do... make compromises, wish things were otherwise, and, hopefully, try to come through for one another no matter how stressful the holidays become.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino.
Charlotte Honigman-Smith

Charlotte Honigman-Smith is a writer and Jewish activist living in San Francisco. She is the editor of Maydeleh: a zine for nice Jewish grrrls, and of JewishAnd, an anthology of writing by Jewish women from mixed families. In her spare time, she teaches high school English. Her work has most recently appeared in Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives, edited by Tobin Belzer and Julie Pelc, SUNY Press, 2003.

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