How to Make Thanksgiving More Jewish.
Start with a “Gratitude Platter”, containing appropriate symbolic foods like cranberry sauce.
Remember when Chanukah and Thanksgiving coincided together in November of 2013? The holiday was dubbed Thanksgivukkah, (even though I suggested “Chanksgiving,” but nobody could pronounce that!) and I celebrated by serving Manischewitz-brined turkey with challah stuffing, latkes with cranberry applesauce, and a turkey shaped menorah with eight feather candles. What fun!
But why wait until this calendar phenomenon occurs again? I didn’t! The past five years I integrated every single one of our culture’s festivals and holidays … not just Chanukah. Let’s just say my family found this extremely creative. Okay we can say that, but in reality they found it extremely confusing.
First off, we’ll start with some basic commonality of which there’s no denying. Thanksgiving is about organizing a meal and encouraging guests to stuff themselves beyond capacity. I rest my case. It’s obviously already a Jewish holiday. But let’s tweak it a tad more, shall we? (Note: The first two holidays below were by far the easiest ones to integrate, thus they are the longest.)
Pesach: Three Thanksgivings ago I intertwined elements of Passover into our November feast so let me elaborate on how. First there was the ritual “Seder plate” on my table, (which I deemed a “Gratitude Platter”) containing appropriate symbolic foods. No shankbone, but turkey giblets signified Jews having big hearts (and also we’re not just chopped liver!) and in place of charoset (the mortar which adhered Israelite’s bricks together) there was a spoonful of yummy cornbread stuffing depicting how overeating bonds us together during hard times. Cranberry sauce stood for Jewish blood running through our veins, which many of us love to cite as the reason we’re still Jewish even if we slip up on keeping one of the 613 mitzvot once in a while. Green bean casserole was the “karpas” dunked in salt-watered down gravy. Those traditional Pesach hardboiled eggs were still on my Thanksgiving display, but now they symbolized being grateful that doctors reversed their decision about too much cholesterol in our omelets. (Okay work with me here, I made this last one seem very legit – trust me!) Instead of singing Dayenu, we made “Gobble” sounds and declared, “We’ve eaten enough!” When it was time to deal with the “Afikoman,” I broke a slice of (unleavened!) pumpkin pie into two and hid it inside a bookcase. (The ants found it first!) No wine glass was set out for Elijah, but a plate of ceremonial food was offered for Squanto – the Native American who taught the pilgrims important stuff. I guess he went low-carb because the cornbread just sat hardening. But the best part of our meal was whomever pulled the wishbone apart (getting the longer side) had their wish granted to be “Passed Over” as we went around the table in our mandatory game of “What are you thankful for?” (I’ll skip telling you what happened as guests mixed up the mashed potatoes with the white horseradish because this section is getting too wordy already!)
Sukkot: Incorporating this festival into Thanksgiving is a natural since it’s a Jewish agricultural celebration and is already considered a “thanksgiving” of sorts for the abundant harvest and thus has obvious similarities. Easy peasy lemon squeazy (yes, we had an estrog in November!) plus our huge turkey dinner was partaken in the sukkah, which we purposely (ok, lazily!) left intact. People stayed overnight inside it, though they never intended to – it was the result of consuming too much turkey, which contains tryptophan and makes you sleepy. We just let them think they fulfilled a Thanksgiving mitzvah!
Purim: Okay, okay so it’s getting harder to do this. But I managed to blend a little Purim into Turkey Day by saying “The Magillah” instead of “The Mayflower.” I also dressed up as Queen “Chosen For Her Beauty and Foils the Plan” (which I decided would’ve been Esther’s Indian name) but my family just scratched their heads.
Rosh Hashanah: One year I fused Rosh Hashanah elements by substituting shofars as centerpieces instead of cornucopias. Hey, they’re the same shape! After that bit of decorating genius, I was stymied as to what else to do so I just served apples and honey instead of apple-pie and called it a night. Guests were underwhelmed.
Yom Kippur: What are you thinking? There’s absolutely nothing to mix n’ match on this somber holy day. Besides the only time you ever say the word “Fast” on Thanksgiving is after the meal -- “Quick, someone bring me some Alka Seltzer fast!”
Yes, it’s true; I discovered there’s a limit to how much Judaism culture you can meld into Thanksgiving customs. So while I’m thinking of it, never say “pogroms” when talking about pilgrims. And don’t try to explain yourself for showing up late to Shabbos on Black Friday, citing extremely long checkout lines in Target. That excuse won’t fly any better than a turkey does.
And finally, even though many Americans connect football games with Thanksgiving – as a typical Jewish mother, I say this is also totally off limits. Why is this sport different from any other sport? Football equals concussions. Oy! My son going to practice instead of Hebrew school? I think not. And black grease marks under his eyes, marring his handsome punim? Enough said. Thanksgiving can just keep its silly football tradition.
Here’s one last and easy token convergence I plan to do...you know how the moment people finish their last crumbs of pecan pie on Thanksgiving, the stores drag out their Christmas trees? Well as guests leave my Thanksgiving table, I’ll be bombarding them with tons of Menorahs and a “Coming Soon!” sign as they exit my front door.
Because the next time we’ll officially have a Thanksgivukkah again will be in the year 76695 …. but meanwhile you have me, your friendly (but quirky!) family holiday planner.