Today, Americans of all ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds celebrate Thanksgiving. The holiday’s American origins are in the Plymouth colony, which had a harvest festival in the fall of 1621 after having survived a rough first year. The Plymouth Separatists had left England to escape religious persecution. They were the first of many millions of refugees fleeing their homelands because they were on the losing side of wars, political change, religious turmoil, or economic dislocation. The millions of Jews who came here from the 1840s to 1921 were part of that tradition.
The Plymouth feast was shared with Native Americans living nearby, and that moment should be a model and a goal for all Americans – to recognize our diversity, our immigrant and native origins, and the need for an inclusive and far reaching sisterhood and brotherhood within our nation.
In 1789, President Washington held a National Day of Thanksgiving to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution. In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving holiday to be celebrated the end of November, reflecting the emerging victory for the United States in the Civil War and the end of slavery, which Lincoln helped achieve through the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, Thanksgiving became the central holiday of America’s “civil religion.” It is a sacred symbol of our nationhood. It is rooted in faith and what Lincoln called “our beneficent Father,” but not in any particular religion. The holiday is patriotic and spiritual – even holy – but not denominational or theistic.
While we think of Thanksgiving as a patriotic holiday rooted in a distant past, it is also a holiday that celebrates the diversity of our culture and the importance of America as a haven for refugees. The Pilgrims arrived as “tired … huddled masses … yearning to breathe free,” to quote Emma Lazarus’s poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Nearly three centuries after that first Thanksgiving, my grandparents came here, along with millions of others from all over the world. They quickly learned to celebrate Thanksgiving, as a secular holiday in the new homeland that gave them sanctuary and religious liberty.
There is also a Jewish context to Thanksgiving. Many of the Plymouth Separatists read Hebrew and saw themselves as inheritors of the traditions of the Torah (what they called the Old Testament). Thus, their notion of “Thanksgiving” was both Biblical and Jewish, even though they were Christians. Their inspiration came in part from the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which can be seen as the first recorded Thanksgiving celebration. As the Book of Deuteronomy says: “the LORD your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you have shall have nothing but joy.” Similarly, Psalm 107 urged Jews to “offer thanksgiving sacrifices” to the LORD.
So as we eat our turkeys and cranberry sauce, we can reflect on the ancient tradition of Thanksgiving, the struggles of immigrants from the seventeenth century to now, and the American notion that our national Constitution, which led President Washington to proclaim a day of Thanksgiving, is designed to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
As the president of Gratz, I wish all of you a healthy and happy Thanksgiving, and I hope, in the words of Deuteronomy, “you shall have nothing but joy.”
Dr. Paul Finkelman