More on Jews, Jewesses, and Thanksgiving

Apropos of Ellen's comment about "what makes Thanksgiving so meaningful for some American Jews" in her prior post, I thought I'd share an excerpt from an article published in The American Jewess in November 1896. The author, Sarah Kussy, who titled her article "Judaism and Its Ceremonies", shared the following:

"... Our festivals, like the Sabbath, have lost for the American Jew much of their sacred meaning, owing to the lack of ceremonial observance he to-day associates with them. The Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur are not infrequently devoted to pleasure, instead of pious meditation and prayer. And because the Sukoh, or booth, is no longer considered a necessary adjunct to the observance of the festival bearing that name, our young people regard the institution as superfluous, deeming the American Thanksgiving an adequate substitute ..."

The full article offers a somewhat mournful sentiment about the erosion of traditional religious practice, but one thing this excerpt suggests is how American Jews, early on in our nation's history, experienced what felt like the Jewishness of an American holiday. Perhaps Thanksgiving offered a way for 19th century American Jews who often felt like outsiders to actually feel like insiders -- fully American while still retaining a certain Jewish intention in their celebration.

For my American Jewish family, Thanksgiving has always felt a lot like our weekly Shabbat dinner. In fact, I distinctly recall a non-Jewish friend of mine joining my family for Shabbat (her first ever) and saying: "This is just like Thanksgiving!" In large part, my friend might have been responding to the food on our Shabbat table: roast chicken, homemade cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and kasha (sort of like stuffing, no?). Yes, these are my family's Shabbat dinner staples. But she might have also noticed the collectively familial, organized framework that Thanksgiving and Shabbat dinner share in common.

Yet another American Jewish connection: Thanksgiving and the Passover Seder. Has anyone seen the Freedom's Feast program?  It's essentially a mini-haggadah (written by Lee Hendler, a former Jewish Women's Archive board member) for Thanksgiving. It includes excerpts of historical documents, responsive readings, songs and stories. Freedom's Feast has a 10 minute, 20 minute, and an alternate / extended version, each designed to add deeper meaning to the Thanksgiving experience. I skimmed through this resource, and its framework does bear an uncanny resemblance to the telling of the Exodus Story at Passover ... only instead of Miriam and the Red Sea, we have Squanto and Plymouth Rock.

So, how Jewish is Thanksgiving? Or how Jewish can it be?

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Yes I also studied the article written by Sarah Kussy in 1986 posted in the The American Jewess about what makes Thanksgiving so meaningful for some American Jews. That was nice article and bears the detail about Jewish society.

The problem with connecting the Thanksgiving experience to Squanto and Plymouth Rock is that we now know that relations between the Puritans and local Indians were violent and repressive. Within a few years we would experience King Phillips War, and from there it was all downhill for First Nations (unless you consider local casinos to be some sort of payback). I increasingly have trouble connecting anything positive between Thanksgiving-as-it-really-was-and-what-it-meant with anything positive about being Jewish. The former seems to be myth papering over nasty, racist, colonialist reality. The latter is what drives me to fight racism and colonialism today. Perhaps that's the connection we should be talking about.

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How to cite this page

Namerow, Jordan. "More on Jews, Jewesses, and Thanksgiving." 26 November 2008. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 25, 2024) <>.