Nov 24, 2021
For many American Jews, Thanksgiving is another high holiday. We celebrate our obligations of citizenship and show appreciation for all that America has granted. Perhaps, in turn, our tradition may have lessons to teach America. Could the Jewish model of interpreting our stories for the present, and our conceptions of memory, gratitude, and redemption, heal our divided country?
In this special episode of Identity/Crisis, Yehuda Kurtzer reflects on the Jewish significance of Thanksgiving.
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The following is a transcript of Episode 78 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda Kurtzer: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity/Crisis: a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer Presidents of Shalom Hartman Institute North America. And we’re recording on Tuesday, November 23rd, 2021. Today’s going to be a little bit of a different show. I don’t have a guest for you, but I wanted to share some thoughts and some love and some thanks in honor of Thanksgiving and maybe to give you something that might be playing in the background if you’re cooking or you’re taking a break, walking away from family to enjoy your holiday season.
In my house growing up, Thanksgiving was canon. I’m fourth-generation American on all sides. All my grandparents were born here. In fact, I actually know very little about my family’s European ancestry.
I say this not because that’s a badge of honor although being American kind of means being willfully ignorant about other languages and cultures and maybe even one’s own. But mostly I share that because they know a lot and care about our time here in America.
So I grew up on stories of my relatives growing up here in the shadow of the Second World War, stories both from the home front and from away in battle. And in my family and the religious phenomenology that comes with being an American Jew, Thanksgiving is the high holidays. We always watched the movie Avalon the night before or on Thanksgiving itself.
I doubt you’ve seen it because in retrospect, as I’ve now discovered watching with my kids, it’s kind of boring. When I was a kid, though, I was a little closer to the generation of American Jews that had imagined coming to America and becoming American. It almost felt like a documentary about my family.
We had an almost ritualized reciting at our table about some of the movie’s best lines. You know, important holidays have multiple interpretations about why they exist and why they matter to us. So Rosh Hashana for instance is the Jewish new year. And it’s also described as the holiday of memory. And it’s also preparation for atonement.
And it’s probably a few other things too. At different times in Jewish history, or maybe in different times in our own lifetimes, our holidays acquire different meanings, all of which are now gifts to us to have the versions of the holidays we need whenever we need. Thanksgiving is the same way. It can mean a lot of different things to us.
And those interpretations need not be in conflict with one another. You can think of them like thick layers. We peel one layer of meaning back and there’s another one waiting. So the first layer of meaning for me on Thanksgiving is memory. Thanksgiving memory is like Pesach memory on Pesach. You know, we don’t really remember the Exodus from Egypt.
We more likely remember and talk about our previous Pesach seders. We talked about those who are not with us anymore. And that time, that funny thing happened, or we read contemporary readings because those readings evoke for us access to memories. We don’t really have ourselves anymore. When we tell our own stories of Thanksgiving’s past, we bridge from our past to our future.
So I can’t think about Thanksgiving ever without thinking about my Bubbe Minnie Dopelt, a great person, one of my favorites. I miss her every day. She wasn’t a great cook, but she was a great eater and a great person to eat with. The best thing she made was something called fricassee. Yeah. Fricassee is a real food made by expert people in various cuisines, none of which bears any resemblance to my grandmother’s version of fricassee, which basically had three ingredients, matzah balls, meatballs, and chicken necks.
Um, what now? But the absolute best thing that she made was her inaptly named sunshine salad which was, let’s just say, not a salad. It’s orange jello with pineapple, Mandarin orange and wait for it, shredded carrots, all in suspended animation. My mom told me once that one unpopular year, my Bubbe made sunshine salad, but instead of using orange jello, she used red jello instead of the shredded carrots, she used beets.
It’s hilarious and terrible. I mean, most of Thanksgiving is pretty great from a food perspective, but you know, I also think you should try to eat things on Thanksgiving that may be objectively terrible, that make you laugh and cry and think about when you’ve eaten them before. I think this is something you can do, whether or not you’re actually able to be with your loved ones.
And this is one of the few places where I’m pretty sure I’m raising my kids, right, because they know about the existence of sunshine salad and they know that they should not eat it, but that they should love their Bubbe, my mom, all the same for when she eats it. And when she’s crying a little bit while eating it, that feels like a little bit of what we want for our children about their Judaism too.
So I could talk about Thanksgiving and memory for a long time, and I also have some good riffs on other great Thanksgiving rituals, like furious napping and watching the Cowboys even if you don’t watch football and Black Friday and more. All of these little experiences really actually do matter, especially when we understand Thanksgiving as part of our religious lives as American Jews. Even the most trivial aspects of a religious day are going to be phenomenologically significant.
There’s a second Thanksgiving though, a second layer. That’s also important and it’s an obvious one to kids and adults of all ages: the Thanksgiving of giving thanks. After all, Thanksgiving is a holiday of gratitude. And I think that what we’re meant to do is to radiate gratitude. What I mean by that is that it’s really hard for many of us to think about how wide our gratitude is meant to reach or to imagine what it means to be grateful to a country or to society.
It’s an especially hard thing to do when we are in the midst of tremendous polarization. And I have more to say about that later. I think a lot of us have gotten firsthand access through this wretched pandemic to thinking about the networks of interdependency that surround us maybe more over the past 20 months than ever before.
My kid’s school Beit Rabban day school on the Upper West Side has been doing for years an Erev Thanksgiving Day parade parade.
Did you follow that? The day before the Thanksgiving day parade. They do their own parade where they walk around the neighborhood saying thanks to all the people who make life better and possible: the firefighters and police officers, the post office workers, and so forth. This year, the kids knew when they were choosing their list of who to say thank you to also include the people administering vaccines at CVS and the people sitting outside at the lab queue COVID testing.
Many of us spent a lot of the early pandemic applauding essential workers as some of us were forced to really confront the question of who is essential in our society. And finally, really considering what a culture of gratitude should look like. But most of the time, I think what most of us probably do is thank those around our own table: whoever made dinner, whoever brought the food, maybe our elders, and then maybe through the ethics of proximity, we implicitly radiate gratitude outwards.
That’s a good start, I think, but American Jews might have to do better. Some of you may have heard me before speaking about one of the most important American Jewish ideas. In our canon, there are multiple American Orthodox rabbis and among them Menachem Mendel Schneerson aka the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein both referred to America in some of their responses as malkhut shel hesed, a kingdom of kindness.
But what they meant to capture is that in contrast to the many other kingdoms and monarchies of other Jewish diasporas, when the word was meant to connote, and oftentimes explicitly came with the language of being described as wicked, America represented to these rabbis, a state that represented goodness to the Jewish people.
They didn’t use the word that I’m about to use to describe America, but I do. America was and is home and homeland. Jews in the 20th century have become really familiar with the language in Hebrew of being a free people in our land. We recite it in Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, but I’d venture to say that that same narrative has characterized America for most of America’s Jews.
For most of our history, for both of these rabbis, to call America a kingdom of kindness was part and parcel of expressing gratitude. And for both of them using that terminology was accompanied by a rhetoric of obligation, the stuff of citizenship. In other places, we might’ve used our inherent otherness from the society, our fear of the state and of the government as an excuse to excuse ourselves from civic obligations, but here as both rabbis write, and I think all of us know, we owe more than the bare minimum. That includes voting and serving in the military. And in general, repaying the debt that America has granted. Now America has been unequal in its beneficence to us as Jews. It’s been good for some and less good for others. Same for Americans in general.
And one of our most profound dividing lines as Americans is about this whole question of whether America is really deserving of our gratitude. And obviously, for some, it is more than that. I think the whole thing is worth naming even for the many of us who have deep, meaningful grievances with America, with the unequal treatment that has been granted to some of its children over others.
I wonder sometimes whether even the right to hold America accountable is something that we give gratitude to America for. America gives us the situatedness to be angry at it. And hopefully, it also gives us the platforms and frameworks with which to try to improve. So for some of us maybe America is a place that we celebrate to which we offer unfettered gratitude.
And for others, America is the place that we demand to be better. We give gratitude for the good, and as the rabbis say in the Talmud, we also give gratitude for our responsibility to fix the bad. But mostly today, I want to talk about a third Thanksgiving. And I think the one that scares a lot of us the most right now, that holiday, which means to commemorate a shared table between authentically different people, regardless of how true that story ever was about Thanksgiving origins.
Well, that feels virtually impossible to a lot of us right now. Or worse, the very effort to try to find common ground and sit at the same table is widely viewed as suspect on both sides of the political aisle and activity that is seen as complicit in one way or another with villainy
This is one of the reasons I detest partisanship and polarization so much is that it’s so very boring. On any given issue, you’re supposed to figure out right away what side you’re on mostly by looking around at the people you already agree with. And I guarantee you, if you’re on Twitter, someone has already gotten to the right opinion on whatever just happened.
And then you’re supposed to align up with that group. Or alternatively, you can also listen for what the wrong people are saying on an issue. And since you already disagree with them on everything, both what they’re saying and likely how they’re saying it, you could just commit to the opposite. It’s so boring.
And in the process, all of us are giving up our ability to decipher how we feel about the issues before us, the right to form evolving political communities with other unpredictable people, and the blessing of getting to grow and change as people in a rapidly involving environment.
Back in 2001, right after 9/11, the American Jewish Committee put together a beautiful packet of readings for the Thanksgiving table. It’s a packet that’s explicitly modeled on the Passover Seder. It’s framed by four big questions and like the Seder, it features a pedagogy of using dramatic readings as a means of fostering group discussion about memory and values and family and so forth.
This was a bold project back in the fall of 2001. America, as you’ll recall, was still reeling from the trauma of the terror attacks and dividing really quickly about the nature and the reach of America’s, to be expected military response. I love knowing that an American Jewish organization at the time, not only invested in Thanksgiving and not just reminding people that we have holidays for respite from our traumas and even from our instinctual responses but then, also at the time it used the template of Torah and the Jewish tradition.
These are among the gifts that we, as Jews can give to America: methodologies for learning and reading and telling stories that we’ve been good at for a long time. And maybe that America can benefit from. Have you ever had the experience of watching Christian or Muslim colleagues encounter the methodology of hevruta learning for the first time? Paired learning?
When people are meant to build relationships with one another across the text. It’s amazing to watch and to be reminded that some of our people’s prized and proprietary methodologies, not just ideas, but methodologies can actually change people’s lives and can change how communities operate.
Anyway, the AJC guide is still out there on their website. I was looking at it this week and something jumped out at me. In this centrist American Jewish guide to America. And in the story that it tells for Thanksgiving, the AJC starts the clock of its narrative in 1619, when the first slave ships traveled to America You’ll recognize that date, of course, and that phrase: the 1619 project because over the course of the past few years, the 1619 project has become the linchpin of the very strange American debate about critical race theory.
At its core, the 1619 project seeks to reposition the story that Americans tell about ourselves in which chattel slavery is not an outlier piece of the American past to be forgotten since it was abolished, but rather to force the Americans to understand slavery is endemic to the American project since its founding and to see its legacy, continuing to course through America’s present.
I guess the first reason it was striking for me to see this story on the AJC website started in 1619 is because it’s hard for me to imagine that if any centrist American Jewish organization was doing such a project in 2021, they’d be able to write the story the same way without being depicted wrongly, in my view, as taking a partisan stance.
I’m skeptical actually that any of us could engage in any narrative project right now without appearing partisan one way or another, but more importantly and more sadly, I wonder what happens to us when we become such fundamentalists about the power of other people’s narratives to define our identities and why we are so insecure as Americans in the possibility of multiple narratives coexisting in this big country, all at the same time.
Now we, as Americans, are not alone in this respect, goodness knows our friends in Israel have yet to reconcile the fact that for is a significant minority of its citizens there, Israel Independence Day is experienced as catastrophe. But we Americans seem to be the people right now, most likely to go to war with one another not as much because of the substance of our grievances with each other, but more importantly, because the stories that we tell seem to make us imagine ourselves completely separate for one another and as enemies to each other. Now I know that stories are powerful, believe me, but what we are doing to each other right now is nearly catastrophic.
It seems that Americans are coming to believe, perhaps as Jews have known for quite some time, that whoever owns the past controls the future. Well, perhaps that’s true, but you’re supposed to spend your time then elaborating on the narratives of the past, interpreting them, bringing them into dialogue with the present, and not just deciding to turn them into orthodoxies.
That’s no good. So here’s the kernel of a thought for today. One that’s working for me and maybe it will help you too. Thanksgiving likes to think of itself as originating at the time of the pilgrims and maybe it did, but it really came into its own as a holiday under President Lincoln becoming a national holiday in 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War.
There’s nobody like Lincoln, but it’s nice to dream. And maybe even to emulate him.
Not because it’s morally healthy vision that pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces are supposed to forget their differences and split a wishbone.
But if anything, because when we were a member that Thanksgiving is born in wartime, we get reminded again about the big shared idea that we’re actually fighting about. The best of Lincoln’s writings in my view might just be his second inaugural address. You can find online the notes and edits that he made in that speech, still in the middle of a war, holding together a fractured union, still trying to envision the future of a country that was violently divided.
In his scribbles, you can discern the fragility that he was desperately trying to capture. He famously says the following in his speech. He’s referring to both sides during the war, “both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men, which a dare to ask, a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces. But let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered that have of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes”
Now wouldn’t it have been easier for Lincoln to describe the side of the Union as on God’s side? I think we would have forgiven him, such fundamentalism, knowing the moral stakes of the civil war.
Slavery is evil and to fight for it to endure would be idolatry, but maybe Lincoln understood. In this liminal moment that there are transcendent ideas and that it’s an act of just some basic epistemological humility to allow God to be bigger than all of us and bigger than all of our differences.
And that to claim God into our conflicts or into the legitimacy of each of our narratives, even as true as they may be to each and every one of us grants us only a short-term sense of affirmation. Maybe we just lose in the end more than we gain. This year, my prayer is that we think of Thanksgiving as temporary.
It’s too big if it’s supposed to be some mythic ideal. The fights in this country are real and a lot of them are worth fighting, but the pause can be something meaningful too. There’s an apocryphal link that a lot of people try to make between the first Thanksgivings and the biblical holiday of Sukkot.
Because after all, some of the first colonists certainly knew their Hebrew Bible and there it is: the best biblical analogy to a fall harvest festival. I kind of think that’s a tenuous historical argument, but it’s a powerful idea nonetheless. Sukkot is our holiday of impermanence.
We don’t think we’re meant to live out in our booths permanently. So it’s a little bit of a glorious idea that for the short time we try to. Passover to is a window into redemption, largely celebrated by Jews throughout history who felt really far removed the other 353 days a year from the glimmer of hope that it offered.
So maybe this year on Thanksgiving, we do a little bit of marking of what seems to us permanently good. That’s the stuff of thanks. And what seems like it might be temporarily possible, like the first greetings of our relatives after months apart, before old grievances and annoyances resurface. A little bit of the reminders of what we hold in common before we start arguing politics. Maybe the willingness to see a glimpse into imagined community for America through the prism of the real communities and families that surround us.
It won’t be long. It won’t last for long, but maybe Thanksgiving can be a holiday of redemption too if only temporarily for a few hours a year on a Thursday in November. One nation under God in a divided America.
And thanks to all of you for listening to Identity/Crisis this week. And for all these weeks since we started. And like they do in Thanksgiving football games, I hope you’ll indulge in some more thank you credits this one time a year.
To my partner in this project, our producer David Zvi Kalman who has envisioned this show and tinkered with it, with me throughout the process.
To M Lewis Gordon, who just recently joined a Hartman team and has already dramatically improved our production processes and hopefully as you’ve noticed the audio quality.
To my assistants, MIRI Miller, who keeps us and our guests on schedule, and to the research assistant Shalhevet Schwartz who goes deep into a lot of the issues we’re going to talk about each so that we can get the best possible conversation.
To the distribution team of Justice Baird, Dorit Rabbani, and Sabra Waxman who pushed out Identity/Crisis to the world.
To so-called for the music.
To all of the various sound editors who have contributed to this project and to the whole Hartman team who are making great Jewish conversation happen in the world from which Identity/Crisis takes its cues.