Paula Lee Hellman is education director at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. She and her Jewish husband have a blended family, which includes children and stepchildren, grandchildren and a step-grandchild from their previous interfaith marriages.
Right now, at this very moment, I am thankful. And each morning when I wake up, especially after 9.11, I look out across a wide meadow, see the sky lightening above distant pines, and am consciously and verbally grateful for being alive and in America.
Since being a small child, my primary identity has been American. On our regular post-Sunday-school drives to visit friends in Westchester or Long Island, New York, our family sang American songs. Songs about the pilgrim's "bride" and spacious skies. Songs that named my hometown--Manhattan--and a wonderful song to the words of a poem by Emma Lazarus, which is on the base of the Statue of Liberty. In that poem, I thought as a child, liberty welcomed my very own ancestors with her lifted lamp beside the golden door.
It's not a wonder to me that my favorite of all holidays is Thanksgiving. (My favorite Jewish holiday is Passover, but that's for another story).
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it doesn't require presents. Because it celebrates being in America and being free. Because it's a time of togetherness. It's an occasion when everyone in the various sequential families I've lived in and friendship groups I've traveled with, religious or not, is willing to say a blessing and express gratitude at the dinner table.
I am an American Jew. That means that in front of my very important Jewish self, I am American. Thanksgiving was a pilgrim's holiday, but one believed to be based on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. So the festival of ingathering and inviting friends to join in a celebration of gratitude feels both American and Jewish.
When I was little, we alternated between Aunt Ruthie's and Aunt Gert's houses for Thanksgiving. There, squished around a table in their tiny dining rooms, we ate from a huge turkey--just like in Norman Rockwell's painting--and our faces probably reflected Rockwellian delight at seeing an array of dishes filled with potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce and bowls of stuffing and gravy.
The adults told each other that "only in America," only in the twentieth century, could Jewish families like ours celebrate as we were doing. And we children listened, or not. But their words sank in. Thanksgiving is real. And important. And American. And Jewish. We alternated Thanksgiving and Labor Day with my mother's family and my father's family, but all our families were intact.
Gradually, the family constellation shifted. Older members died. Younger members grew older and married. Some, as I did, married "out" and left The City. We cousins made our own celebrations with our new families, many of which included people who weren't Jewish. And as we grew older, we dealt with what had been unthinkable (or at least very rare) when I was growing up: divorce.
The first family I created included a non-observant Methodist husband with a son, Tarn, who was raised in two homes. Tarn's mother, a nominal Presbyterian, had married a non-practicing Catholic. And I was a non-practicing Jew. I had two biological children, Jason and Tara, who visited their father after our divorce. When I eventually re-married, I married a Jewish man whose first wife was a "New Age" Christian. And they also had a son, Adam, who was raised in two homes. Thanksgiving in all those child-raising years was central to our annual holiday cycle. And it became problematic. Not because of religion, but logistics.
There were issues about which parent would "have" the child at Thanksgiving. So every year, someone was missing. Missing in one of two senses: Either by being absent at the family table or by longing for an absent parent who was celebrating in a distant place.
Thanksgiving as a holiday created holes which were only partly filled by an additional prayer that acknowleded those we wished were with us that year. Children reached out to distant parents by phone. Far-away parents sent flowers or called to connect with their children.
One memorable Thanksgiving in my home included Tarn as an adult with his wife and their children, my husband's son Adam, and my daughter Tara. Since Tarn's step-father wasn't home for the holiday, we invited Tarn's mother and her daughter with her second husband. My daughter and Tarn's mother's daughter told us that they were quarter-sisters, because they shared a half-brother. That year was special, because Tarn's mother and I, who each had parented Tarn, had a few moments of deep connection and pride as we gave thanks for the young boy we had separately but communally raised to adulthood. And I realized at that moment how important it is for a child, even an adult child, to have two doting parents remembering the growing-up years.
When she was a new bride, my daughter Tara sought to be the center of Thanksgiving family life. One year my husband and I traveled across the state to be with her new family as the only Jews in the household. Prayers were said non-denominationally, but it was clear to me that the Baptist family wanted to invoke Jesus as we comfortably mentioned God.
Now Tara is divorced. This year, two-and-a-half-year-old Caleb will be with his father for Thanksgiving. Adam is in California. Jason is in Detroit. Holidays are shared. The division of family continues and our personal celebration will be smaller. Some years now, we go out for the dinner. We quietly say our blessings and head for the buffet, smiling at strangers who are also celebrating what was once an at-home holiday. And we sit as close as we can to the fireplace, fire blazing from ceramic logs.
I remain grateful and proud to be an American. And Thanksgiving is still my favorite secular holiday. But I have nostalgia for the years when Thanksgiving was a dependable visit to Aunt Ruthie's house, and I listened to the same stories from the same reliably present relatives, year after year.