It’s not impossible, but it IS difficult, to avoid calling the beginning of Chanukah this year by its special, one-time name: THANKSGIVUKKAH! Songs are being written about this intersection of our Festival of Lights and Thanksgiving Day that won’t happen for another 79,000 years. For families who have ever exchanged Chanukah gifts or lit a chanukiah early because they were together at Thanksgiving, this year is just for you! We will light candles and share Chanukah ON TIME while we are enjoying a holiday at which Americans usually extend their hospitality to relatives, friends and neighbors for a commonly-expanded festive meal and celebration. Perhaps sweet potato latkes are in order!
On Friday, October 25, I led a discussion during our Shabbat service about Rebekah’s kindness and hospitality shown to Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, and the relationship of those values to the recently published study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews.” Thanksgiving is actually a perfect illustration of what now seems to be the place of Jews in America. Members of the Jewish community and Jewish households are generally comfortable and well-educated. We experience much less anti-Semitism than in the past, while understanding that prejudice still exists and recognizing that incidents that reflect anti-Jewish bigotry still occur. Less than half of American Jews belong to a congregation, and most of those who do belong are moving towards a Jewish life that offers more personal choice. “Essential” elements of being Jewish in America in 2013 include remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical/moral life, working for justice and equality, being intellectually curious, caring about Israel, and having a good sense of humor (!). Jewish pride is at a high level both for those who practice Judaism as a religion and for those who see themselves as ethnically and culturally Jewish. Most have a strong sense of belonging to the American Jewish community and feel that being Jewish is at least somewhat important in their lives. The survey found that 7 in 10 take part in a Pesach seder, and 5 in 10 fast for all or part of Yom Kippur. Ironically, this survey that demonstrates a comfort with American life did not, in this year of “Thanksgivukkah,” highlight a statistic about what percentage of American Jewish households light Chanukah candles. Based on past surveys of American Jews, it is likely somewhere around 8 in 10. A wide range of beliefs about God exist now, with many noting that they see God as a “universal Spirit.” About half of those surveyed know the Hebrew alphabet, and 13% understand most of the words they read in Hebrew.
This “Portrait of American Jews” tells us who we are, and hints at who we can be, especially when it speaks of morality, justice, equality, intellectual curiosity, remembrance, belonging, pride, and even humor. Even more, we can learn a lesson about “who we can be” from the hospitality and generosity of spirit shown by Rebekah to Abraham’s servant in giving him water to drink after his journey and then, without being asked, offering to give water to his camels. Rebekah acted quickly, just as Abraham, Sarah and their servants had done before, when three mysterious messengers visited them to make an unexpected announcement that Sarah was expecting. The Pew survey says, in many ways, that we need to be welcoming, and non-judgmental, as much as possible, if we want to grow as a thriving and vital community.
Thanksgiving and Chanukah both offer us the perfect opportunity to be grateful for our freedom, for all that we have, for family, for the gifts of friendship and true kindness (CHESED VE-EMET, as demonstrated by Rebekah), and for the beauty and bounty of nature. When I used to speak about the Jewish holidays on my Youth Group panel that informed church groups about Judaism, I made a link between Thanksgiving and Sukkot as both showing gratitude for a bountiful harvest. The book of Second Maccabees (in the Apocrypha) suggested that the first Chanukah celebration was a “late Sukkot” once the Temple had been cleansed and rededicated. So, if Chanukah is related to Sukkot, and Sukkot is related to Thanksgiving, then a Chanukah/Thanksgiving connection has always been possible!
May we celebrate both Thanksgiving and Chanukah this year with pride, with joy, with gratitude for all that we have, and with a sense that those lights that we light every year will continue to be holy and special for all of us, individually and together! So have a happy Thanksgiving…..Chanukah and….Thanksgivukkah!