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When You Have Eaten Your Fill, Give Thanks

Nov. 13, 2008

LOS ANGELES (JTA) How Jewish is Thanksgiving? With relatives flying in from eretz everywhere, with drama in the kitchen and at the table, and a time to give modim, thanks, and say shehechiyanu for being able to celebrate together another year, how can we not think of Thanksgiving as an adopted Jewish day of family gathering?

Though Judaism is a religion of feasts, with a seudat mitzvah--a feast commemorating the completion of a mitzvah--for circumcision, consolation, completing a tractate of Talmud or preparing for Purim, there is no seudah for thanks. Deuteronomy does tell us, however, that upon being brought into the land of olive trees and honey, "When you have eaten your fill, give thanks."

pumkin topEven considering a tough economic year with retirement funds shrinking, and the cost of food and tuition growing, whichever calendar you follow, are there really ever enough available days to give thanks?

With mainstream culture where we lie and rise, it's a struggle being a religious minority in America. Every so often Jews need--without the threat of identity loss--an opportunity simply to fit in. We need to bring home the turkey like everyone else, then sit around after dinner sleepy, stuffed and watching football.

A national holiday since 1863, Thanksgiving for many Jewish families is a time to meet, greet and eat between Sukkot and Hanukkah. It's especially so for college students, who travel home to show off new boyfriends and girlfriends, hairstyles, beards and learning. Even the dirty laundry becomes part of the ritual.

The day can be a test, too.

A non-Jewish publisher for whom I once worked asked, "Do Jews celebrate Thanksgiving?"

Surprised at first, not sure how to respond, I finally answered with a question: "It's an America holiday. We qualify, don't we?"

It's an American holiday with origins in a persecuted religious group who makes an exodus and finds its way if not to a promised land, then to a land of religious freedom. Ring any bells, dinner or otherwise?

Some think Thanksgiving feels much like Sukkot. Both are harvest holidays where thanks and praise are given, and mass quantities of food are communally shared. Each involved a wilderness pilgrimage. Each has origins in makeshift living accommodations.

So while we're shopping for decorative cardboard Pilgrims, perhaps we should throw in an Israelite or two. Or while watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, just imagine a giant inflatable etrog floating by.

As for the main course, it's the Jews who have the inside scoop on the lifestyle and husbandry of America's favorite Thanksgiving entree. Israel is a major turkey-producing country, with many kibbutzim specializing in turkey ranching.

Many who have visited Israel, especially students, have had the opportunity to observe turkeys doing more than gobbling. My wife while in Israel tended a turkey co-op for a month--the month that lasts a lifetime. Every Thanksgiving she regales us with stories of corralling, feeding, even injecting turkeys. On every evening of her stay, she dined on turkey schnitzel.

Now how many other American households have an ex-turkey rancher at their table? Besides, kosher turkeys are grown without hormones. And according to Cook's Illustrated, a gourmet magazine that ran a taste test, kosher birds, probably because of the salt used in koshering, are moist, flavorful and taste best.

So, pass the turkey, b'vakasha!

The Jewish community has also found community-minded ways to celebrate the day. Many synagogues as tzedakah activities contribute staffing along with material and financial contributions to Thanksgiving meal giveaways.

Thanksgiving is one of the few days in America where interfaith cooperation reigns, with many synagogues and churches holding combined services. Rabbis, ministers, priests and pastors try valiantly to craft services that will be meaningful yet not offensive to their combined congregations.

As a child at such a service, the first time I went to a church, the service ended with the congregation singing a song of thanks that began, "We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing."  From a hymn book I sang along, reassured to discover that other people sang about God, too. Jews have their own prayers and psalms of thanks. Modim, a prayer included morning, noon and night in the daily liturgy, includes the words, "We thank you and praise you for our lives that are in your hand."

This year at my Thanksgiving dinner I plan to break bread with the motzi and end with the Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meal that begins, "Let us thank the One whose food we have eaten."

Guests also must give thanks--that is, if they ever want to be invited back. Praise all who make Thanksgiving possible. Selah: To whoever had the culinary wisdom to menu plan and cook, the skill to chop and blend and simmer, the patience to test, time, taste and season. Praised on Turkey Day they all should be; thanked and praised.

Hebrew for "Blessing on Nourishment," the blessing after meals. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "righteousness," it usually means "charity" or "righteous giving." In Judaism, it refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, including giving to those in need. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "meal." Hebrew for "meal." Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Hebrew word for a yellow citron, used ritually in the holiday of Sukkot. Hebrew for "brings forth" or "expels," the first unique or identifying word of the blessing over bread ("...brings forth bread from the earth"). Some say this blessing over bread, others recite it as a catch-all before a meal. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story.

Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer.

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