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Should Jews Celebrate Thanksgiving?

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American Jewish Thanksgiving Celebration

American Jewish Thanksgiving Celebration

Lisa Katz

American Jews Celebrate Thanksgiving

Celebration is Permissable

Thanksgiving is a secular holiday in terms of its origins and the ways it is celebrated. Thus, there is no halachic problem with American Jews celebrating Thanksgiving. In other words, Jews are permitted by Jewish law to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Secular Origins

Thanksgiving was first celebrated in America in 1621 by American pilgrims who wanted to show thanks for their harvest. During the American Revolution, the First Continental Congress proposed making Thanksgiving a national holiday, and many who were sympathetic to the revolution began to celebrate it. Then in 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be a national holiday and day of rest.

Secular Rituals

The majority of Americans do not celebrate Thanksgiving with religious rituals. Generally the holiday is celebrated by families gathering together to eat a festive meal with turkey. Thanks to the pervasiveness of television, watching the Macy's parade and football games has also become a popular Thanksgiving custom.

Celebration is Appropriate

In addition, it is appropriate for American Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving. American Jews have a great deal for which to be thankful. America has been more than just a safe haven for Jews. Joseph Lieberman's candidacy for vice president of the United States is testimony to the acceptance of Jews in American society. In the long history of the Diaspora, Jews have never been as prosperous, organized, influential and accepted as they are today in America. 

Furthermore, "giving thanks" has always been an important part of Judaism, from reciting blessings after meals to the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. Since Biblical times, the ancient Israelites celebrated Sukkot by bringing a portion of their fall harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem as a sacrifice, and then gathering with their families in booths (commemoration of their forty years of wandering in the desert before entering the Land of Israel) to feast on their portion of the harvest. Some even believe that the original Thanksgiving meal of the Pilgrims of New Salem, Massachusetts was a copy of the Sukkot festival celebrated by the ancient Israelites of Jerusalem.

A "Kosher" Thanksgiving

Some American Jews occasionally feel uneasy in their celebration of Thanksgiving. One of the main reasons for this uneasiness is the tendency of non-kosher food and Christian content to creep into the celebration of Thanksgiving. In surfing the Net for Thanksgiving content, it was difficult to find Thanksgiving sites that did not contain a recipe with ham or information about Christmas. 

How can American Jews celebrate Thanksgiving without feeling they are compromising their Jewish identity, beliefs, obligations and customs? 

Some suggest stripping the celebration of all religious aspects, making sure the secular nature of the holiday is clear. Jewish law says Jews can celebrate secular holidays as long as 1) they are not celebrated with people who bring religious worship to the celebration and 2) the celebration does not appear to be a religious ritual. 

Others suggest adding Jewish content to the celebration. A group of Conservative rabbis have created a Thanksgiving mini-service with Jewish content.

One can easily make the Thanksgiving celebration consistent with Jewish law and custom by making sure the Thanksgiving meal is kosher.

American Jews in Israel Celebrate Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday that leaves many with vivid and happy childhood memories of time spent with family and friends. It is no surprise, then, that even many American immigrants to Israel, such as myself, continue to celebrate the holiday in Israel with fellow American immigrants. My family looks forward to having our home in Israel filled with English speaking friends, turkey, and pumpkin pie each Thanksgiving. If we are lucky, we might even be able to find a cable channel broadcasting the parade and a real football (not soccer) game.

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