War and giving thanks don’t go together in an obvious way, so I find it surprising that President Lincoln proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War (or the War Between the States, to give homage to my southern roots). As a percentage of the population, more American lives were lost during that five-year contest than in any other war in which the United States has fought. And yet Lincoln, in his proclamation, found a half dozen reasons for gratitude:
- the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies
- peace with all foreign nations
- widespread respect for American laws
- continued growth of the country’s settlements
- abundant yield of iron and coal mines
- steady increase of population, despite the huge losses and the sadly increasing number of widows and orphans.
People had celebrated a day of Thanksgiving before that, but it was inconsistent. Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular magazine for women in 19th century America, campaigned for years to make Thanksgiving a nationally observed holiday. Her goal was to establish a “great Union Festival of America.”
Gratitude. Unity. A day to bring Americans together. And, I would add, a day to make American Jews feel unified. At last, an American holiday I can celebrate with both my Jewish and my American selves.
In my family, we have tried to maintain that original sense of gratitude by asking everybody at the table to cite something for which they are thankful. For years we measured our kids’ growing maturity by what they named. We heard them progress from blankey or Bear-Bear to more sophisticated (but never more beloved) toys, from just Mommy and Daddy to friends, teachers, cousins, and grandparents. Later they included good health, whatever opportunities for travel or study they were blessed with, and the love that surrounded us all.
Because Julian and I insist that we pause to reflect on our many reasons for gratitude, the holiday has a religious feel to it. And yet, we can cook. We can drive. We can turn lights on and off, ooh and aah at the Macy’s parade on TV. Jewish holidays and the weekly Sabbath tend to set us apart: we stay home or walk to services when our neighbors are at work, driving to the mall, or using their electronic devices. But on Thanksgiving we can do all those things that, as observant Jews, my branch of the family doesn’t do on the Sabbath and festivals. We enjoy all the benefits without the restrictions. We feel fully American and fully Jewish.
Thank heavens, as the mad shopping day dubbed Black Friday creeps backward to create Black Thursday, I have no urge to be first, or even last, in line for the day’s bargains. I don’t need to shop for Christmas, and even if I did, no savings would be worth the crushing crowds. Instead, this year, as I think ahead to Thanksgiving, I am starting my mental list, not for shopping but for gratitude:
- Despite my cancer, I’m still here and not in pain.
- I live in a country that allows me to practice my religion freely.
- I communicate often with my children and grandchildren. We love each other.
- I may drive Julian crazy, but he’s still here, at my side, for better and for worse.
- My friends and my community support me in countless ways.
- I’ve held in my hand the published version of the memoir that I spent six years writing.
- Though I miss tutoring, I have found a different, less germ-laden way to volunteer in a hands-on capacity at the Brighton Food Cupboard.
- I enjoy naps and chocolate ice cream daily, without guilt.
Our feast, to be held this year either in my son’s New Jersey home or with Rochester friends, won’t be very different from those of non-Jewish neighbors. We’ll have turkey and stuffing, though there will be no pork sausage or oysters in the dressing. The stuffing will be matzah-based, using farfel (flakes of matzah) and vegetables, moistened with kosher chicken soup and non-dairy margarine. Fortunately, kosher turkeys are easy to come by, though at a price that would make our neighbors gasp and turn ashen. We will groan, pay the premium price, and make a Thanksgiving meal that is traditionally American and fully kosher. A neighbor dropping by after the preparations are complete wouldn’t see the difference between our meal and hers. As a bonus, we can drive to the store should we forget something.
To top off the meal, I’ll contribute a pecan pie (those southern roots again). And I’ll revel in the day that brings the two prominent sides of my identity together, the day on which I pay grateful homage to both my American and my Jewish pedigrees. I’ll join comfortably with my neighbors across America to give thanks for our bounty.