What do Jews, the Pilgrims of the Mayflower, and the fourth Thursday of each November in the United States have in common? Quite a lot, in fact. But, many still ask “Do Jewish people celebrate Thanksgiving?” In order to understand the condition of American Jewry, one must understand the crucial role Judaism played in the faith of the Pilgrims.
Those who celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621 were Puritans who strongly identified with the religious traditions and plight of the Israelites featured in the Hebrew Bible. Also, and more simply, Thanksgiving’s secular themes of giving thanks for family, friends, and a bountiful feast transcend all religious lines.
The quest for religious freedom is not excluded to a specific faith and the Puritans, who would be known as the Pilgrims of the Mayflower who celebrated the first Thanksgiving in America, would find their historical arc parallel to that of the struggles of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible.
Puritans were English Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries disillusioned with the limited extent to which the English Reformation purified the Church of England of Roman Catholic traditions, in favor of Protestant practices. While the majority of Puritans remained aligned with the Church of England in the Elizabethan England (1558-1603), during the reign of James I (1603 – 1625) measures were taken to suppress radical Puritan ideology, including suspending and displacing Puritan ministers.
Increasingly, more of these separating Puritans saw no choice but to immigrate in order to find religious refuge and practice their faith without fear of discrimination or persecution. This immigration came to be known as The Great Migration and lasted from 1629 to 1642, or from the settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the start of the English Civil War. Within this 13-year period, an estimated 21,000 Puritan immigrants settled in New England.
The Puritans drew direct parallels between The Great Migration and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt with themselves in the role of the Israelites, England as Egypt, King James I as the Egyptian pharaoh (believed to be either Ahmose I or Ramesses the Great by Biblical scholars), and their crossing of the Atlantic Ocean as the Israelites crossing of the Red Sea. To the Puritans, America represented the Israelites’ Promised Land.
As the second book in the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Exodus is the biblical narrative of the Israelites deliverance by God from slavery at the hands of the Egyptian pharaoh. The Book of Exodus also includes Moses receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, and the 40 years spent wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land (which, would be known as Canaan).
Biblical scholars, like Duke University’s Carole Meyers, argue the Book of Exodus is the most important book in the Hebrew Bible. It’s ubiquitousness and themes of hardship, escape, community, and deliverance help to explain why it resonated so deeply with the Puritans as they forged their own journey to the New World.
Giving Thanks Across Religious Line
Writing for Sefaria, a non-profit organization advancing Jewish studies, Rabbi Bonnie Margulis traces the origins of Thanksgiving back to the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Known as the Festival of Ingathering, Sukkot is a “harvest festival” celebrated between late September and early October.
Many historians consider that the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, who celebrated the first Thanksgiving, looked to the Hebrew Bible (specifically, the Book of Leviticus) for inspiration. Historically, Sukkot observes the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land. Later, the Sukkot represented the end of the harvest, when crops were gathered and stored, and was celebrated as a means to give thanks to fruits produced from their labor.
That main idea, of “giving thanks” on Thanksgiving is, itself, an inherently Jewish value practiced daily. Jews will often give thanks to God before sitting down to eat, and rabbis are taught to give 100 blessings of gratitude each day.
As Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer who serves Temple B’nai Shalom in New Jersey notes, blessing God or saying “Baruch atah Adonai” (which means “Blessed are you God,” in Hebrew) for family, friends, or anything else one may feel thankful is not mutually exclusive to Thanksgiving and can be incorporated into anyone’s life, regardless of religious faith.
What Thanksgiving Means to American Jews
Thanksgiving, as a national holiday in the United States, was first proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War, as a means of commemorating the Union’s perseverance, sacrifice, and blessings. But, 156 years ago, Thanksgiving had a strong religious association and connection. Over time however, that would change.
It’s only been 80 years that Thanksgiving has been celebrated in the tradition Americans observe today. And, just as in 1863 with the Civil War, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s motivations were partly political. During The Great Depression, Roosevelt moved up the date of Thanksgiving from the fifth to the fourth Thursday in November, with the idea that businesses would have an additional week to sell goods to consumers before Christmas.
Ironically, Macy’s founder and Jewish entrepreneur, Fred Lazarus, Jr. is credited with convincing President Roosevelt to make the adjustment and, in 1939, it was passed into law by Congress.
American Jews celebrating Thanksgiving is not a new phenomenon. In an exhibition by the Library of Congress titled “From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America,” millions of European Jews escaped their native lands to find peace and prosperity in the “Golden Land” of America. Even patriotic songs in Yiddish like the 1910 song Leben zol Amerika (Long Live America) were written expressing Jewish immigrants’ love for and loyalty to the “Land of the Free.”
Thanksgiving provided an ideal way for American Jews to assimilate to their new homeland without sacrificing their religious beliefs. Many American Jews do not celebrate Sukkot, but they do celebrate Thanksgiving. One of the reasons why is that while holidays like Sukkot are religious, Thanksgiving is a secular holiday. This allows American Jews the freedom to give thanks during the fall with family and friends who are both Jews and non-Jews alike.
Keeping Kosher on Thanksgiving
When one thinks of Thanksgiving, the first thing that comes to mind is the food. No Thanksgiving is perfect without a turkey and all the trimmings. But, is Thanksgiving even kosher? It may be a delicate question to ask, but it is a fair one because of its religious significance to Jewish law (or, Halakha). Those religious dietary restrictions play a prominent role in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible.
So, how do American culinary traditions on Thanksgiving like turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce reconcile keeping kosher with taking a tryptophan-fueled nap after the big meal?
The answer? While there are differing opinions by contemporary poskim (legal scholars of Jewish law who determine the position of Halakha, many American Jews adhere to the practices of their local communities and synagogues, but with respect for the sentiments and practices of other communities.
In a 2016 article, Haaretz noted what is and what isn’t considered kosher when it comes to a Thanksgiving meal. Pork products remain a fundamental food that is not kosher, but what are other Thanksgiving foods that may violate keeping kosher.
Because of the religious dietary restrictions of dairy products, unless the animal it comes from (as well as any added ingredients) is kosher, a butter-basted turkey or cream-enriched mashed potatoes would not be considered acceptable.
Also, as stated in the Book of Exodus (23:19), cooking and eating meat and dairy together is not considered kosher. As is customary, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews will wait six hours after consuming meat before eating dairy, which some American Jews also adhere to.
Food and Faith
Look online, and you’ll find numerous websites offering iconic Jewish foods to enhance your Thanksgiving meal and give it Jewish flair. From Morocco to Iran, Jewish foods represent a global culinary smorgasbord of the countries Jews have settled in over the course of thousands of years.
A seminal Thanksgiving appetizer in Jewish households is a batch of classic potato latkes. But, if you’re looking to keep your Thanksgiving as American as apple pie, try basting your turkey with olive oil instead of butter or whip up a batch of pareve mashed potato recipe as developed by the cooking blog The Spruce Eats.
Pareve means food cooked without meat or milk (or cream). Instead of using cream and butter, soy milk and olive oil are delicious substitutes.
For dessert? Nothing beats a classic apple cake or a slice of chocolate babka; both Jewish sweet treats that will satisfy even the most passionate of pumpkin pie fans.
How Rabbis Celebrate Thanksgiving
We’ve established the historical roots and personal meaning of Thanksgiving to American Jews. But how do rabbis in America, the ones who teach Jewish law and religion celebrate the holiday? Do they even celebrate Thanksgiving?
Speaking to the Atlanta Jewish Times in 2018, Rabbi Mark Zimmerman said that while Thanksgiving wasn’t a tradition growing up, it’s a holiday based on a Jewish idea. In his adult life, he does celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends because giving thanks is an everyday part of Jewish living.
While Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman and his family don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the traditional sense, he and his family take a trip to the mountains over the holiday weekend to pray and reflect on the appreciation they feel for America and the opportunities offered to them and the Jewish people.
In an article for California’s Academy for Jewish Religion, Rabbi Mel Gottlieb notes that by practicing Judaism, every day can be considered Thanksgiving because of how strongly Jews identify with themes of giving thanks and gratitude.
Giving Thanks By Giving Back
We’ve spoken a lot about how closely aligned the idea of “giving thanks” is an inherent value instilled in Jewish people and is a prevailing reason why American Jews have embraced Thanksgiving with open arms.
Many Jewish community centers and Jewish non-profit organizations around the U.S. use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to give back to their neighbors in need during the holidays. For almost 20 years, the Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg, PA. shows their appreciation to the city’s emergency first responders who aren’t able to enjoy the holiday, by preparing for them a Thanksgiving feast.
In Denver, CO. Jewish Family Service, which affords vital services and needs to vulnerable people throughout the United States, provided over 5,000 people with 622,000 pounds of food for Thanksgiving in 2018.
For 30 years, Community Servings (founded by the American Jewish Congress) serves over half a million meals across Massachusetts to critically ill individuals and their families each year. Their specially prepared Thanksgiving dinners are made to meet the medical and nutritional needs of those suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other life-threatening illnesses and diseases.
An American Tradition for Everyone
While we’ve learned about the history of Thanksgiving, its ties to Judaism, how Jews give back, and even how to keep kosher while still enjoying a classic holiday meal, what Thanksgiving truly represents to the millions of Jews living in America is this: Thanksgiving is a way to combine the Jewish value of giving thanks and blessings to family and friends, with a secular holiday that can be celebrated across all religious lines. For many Jewish people, Thanksgiving is also a way to appreciate America.
Just as with the Pilgrims of the Massachusetts Bay Colony almost 400 years ago, America also represented an escape from religious persecution as well as ethnic discrimination for Jews. Even with the rise of the antisemitism in the U.S., as recently as the October 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Shooting in Pittsburgh, American Jews still see their adopted homeland as a refuge.
So, Thanksgiving is more than an opportunity to enjoy food, family, friends, and a day of football. It is a day to honor those who came before us who made it possible for everyone to appreciate life; regardless of faith, with arms wide open in celebration of the land of the free and the home of the brave.