Episode 26: A Thanksgiving Seder (Transcript)

Episode 26: A Thanksgiving Seder

Deborah Lauter: We’ve come to call it the Thanksgaddah… so we combined Thanksgiving and the Haggadah with the pun of “Thanks Goddah.”

Barbara Rosenblit: Cute, huh?

Deborah: Yeah, it’s cute.

[Theme music]

Deborah: I’m Deborah Lauter.

Barbara: And I’m Barbara Rosenblit. We’ve known each other a long time.

Deborah: Probably 28 years.

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. Deborah and Barbara met in Atlanta, where Deborah was a lawyer with the Anti-Defamation League. Barbara teaches history at the Weber School… a pluralistic Jewish day school. The Lauter and Rosenblit families have been having Thanksgiving together for decades. This year, they’ll be in Brooklyn, doing what they always do: eating turkey, being together… and… having a Thanksgiving Seder.

[Theme music fades]

Barbara: We go around the table, very traditional style that way.

Nahanni: But wait a minute. Isn’t the beauty of Thanksgiving that it’s non-sectarian? And that on just this one holiday all we have to do is get together and eat?

Barbara: This holiday for many Jews… you know, you can take a sigh of relief… you don’t have to go to shul… you don't have to... you can be a pure true, total American on this day. And so some people sort of can flee in some way the Jewish nature of celebration. This is a way to say no, you know, this is the opportunity to celebrate being an American and being a Jew and how those really are interlocked.

Deborah: Yeah.

Nahanni: The seder begins… “This is a tale of deliverance.” I ask if Deborah and Barbara if they’re comparing the founding of America with the Passover story and the exodus from Egypt.

Deborah: No, not so much actually, not at all. This is celebrating us in this moment of history…. America’s history is a documented history. Biblical history is our story, our narrative that we fall back on…

Deborah: The emphasis really here is on American history, but it’s guided by Jewish values.

Nahanni: The seder describes the 1621 harvest festival between the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors. It acknowledges that some think Thanksgiving erases the violence and discrimination White colonists perpetrated against Native Americans. For others, the holiday commemorates a moment of mutual respect when coexistence seemed possible.

Deborah: We talk a lot about the American experiment and what does Democracy mean. We read the Gettysburg Address… We sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. We do the Bill of Rights. Even though these documents seem heavy, it’s definitely interspersed with a lot of joy. So we actually do four cups of wine and we raise our cups to God bless the Republic, God Bless Columbia, God Bless Cincinnatus, and God Bless America. So the different names for the United States.

Nahanni: The seder also includes Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. They’ve recently added “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’s poem about the Statue of Liberty, and this year, they’ll add a prayer for the health of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Barbara: It is a very joyful event and I think it gives us a moment to remember what America is founded on… you know, kind of a wistful reminder that these documents are not fiction, these documents really are the foundation of the world that could be and that we can continue to fight for.

Deborah: One of my favorites is the letter that George Washington wrote to the Tuoro synagogue in Rhode Island, and this was in 1790. They had sent him a lovely letter offering blessings and he had responded, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of all of the other inhabitants while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Nahanni: Readings are interspersed with songs, and one of the families’ favorites is “God Bless America.” This year, Deborah’s been thinking more about the history of the song. Irving Berlin wrote it in 1918, but it wasn’t released in public until Kate Smith sang it on the radio in 1938, the day after Kristallnacht.

Archival audio of Kate Smith: [Applause] While the storm clouds gather, far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free. Let us all be grateful for a land…

Deborah: There were some who loved the song so much and they felt it should actually replace “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem, but there was a wave of antisemites who were like, no the Jews, we can’t have a song written by a Jew being our national anthem. So as we sing “God Bless America” this year, I want to talk about that history...

Barbara: Before we sing it.

Deborah: Before we sing it... so that we can appreciate who Irving Berlin was, as a refugee to this country, and what our history was like, because I think particularly for younger generations who are sort of waking up to Pittsburgh and what does antisemitism in America mean today… that they need to understand what the history was in this country and that those kinds of forces have always been there.

Nahanni: In fact, right in New York City, three months after “God Bless America” debuted on the radio, twenty-thousand Nazi supporters held a rally in Madison Square Garden.

Deborah: And some of the rhetoric was absolutely chilling, and some of it you see parallels to today.

Nahanni: Deborah says they’ll talk about the recent killing of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. She also wants to discuss freedom of the press. In other years they’ve focused on different social justice issues: reproductive choice, mass incarceration…

Deborah: I like it to be sort of a wake up call for those who really haven't been paying as much attention to what's been happening. To get them to think... what does our democracy mean and how can they make a difference in it. So, I think this year more than ever it’s going to be a very interesting discussion.

Nahanni: But it’s not all seriousness.

Barbara: Don’t forget the Mishnah!

Deborah: We never forget the Mishnah Thanksgiving… Barbara wrote a piece that was in the original Thanksgiving… she can talk about.

Babara: It’s Mishnah Thanksgiving.

Nahanni: A parody of a tractate of Mishnah. Here’s an excerpt.

Barbara: Eize hu yom ha’hodaya. What is Thanksgiving? The roasted Turkey is stuffed or not stuffed. The cranberries are jellied or whole berries. If they are jellied they must be canned. If they are whole berries they can be fresh or frozen or canned. The pumpkin may be canned or fresh, but it must be cooked. Two are preparing a meal, or one was preparing and one was serving. This one says, “I prepared the meal so I will not clean.” This one says, “I set the table, and served the meal, so I will not clean.” At least two guests are invited to the Thanksgiving meal. This one says the turkey is not as good as your Grandmother’s. And this one says we are eating the meal too late. Whenever they complain, or do not help prepare, they shall not be invited back the next year.

Barbara: And then after that we raise a glass and the charge is, Quell your hunger and wait some more, here we raise our second glass of wine and say God Bless Cincinnatus!

Barbara: In the Mishnah... the line about the person who cooks doesn’t have to do dishes… that’s my favorite line, cause I do the cooking.

Nahanni: What’s on the menu this year?

Deborah: Oh, it’s always the same. It’s the turkey, it’s my father’s (alavhasholom) stuffing recipe… sweet potatoes… cranberries, always have to have the jellied… the Mishnah refers to those who like the jellied and those who like whole berry, so those will both be there.

Nahanni: Do people get to eat before, or do they have to finish the seder before they get any food?

Deborah: They have to finish. Yeah. [Laughs]

Me: Does anyone complain?

Barbara: No… you heard the Mishnah. If they complain they don’t come back.

Barbara: It’s ultimately a remarkably elevating evening, as well as nourishing physically and emotionally. Yeah...

Nahanni: A lot of people just get together and eat!

Deborah: Which is fine too.

Barbara: Anything to get together, you know, that’s a good thing too. Yeah.

Barbara: There’s certainly meaning in going around the table before you have a wonderful meal and say what you’re grateful for. This is another version of that.

Deborah: We’re grateful for American democracy.

Barbara: Yeah.

Archival audio of Kate Smith: God Bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her, through the night with a light from above. Through the mountains and the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam… God Bless America, my home sweet home…

Nahanni: May we all enjoy lively discussions, good food, and good company this Thanksgiving… in whatever way we choose to mark the day.

Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for another episode of Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Judith Rosenbaum, the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, and Production Assistant Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.

Archival audio of Kate Smith: God Bless America, land that I love.

Nahanni: You’re now listening to an archival recording of Kate Smith singing Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. If you’d like to hear more about Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” check out Episode 9: A Sonnet for America, our Thanksgiving episode from two years ago. You can find it with all our other episodes at jwa.org/canwetalk.

Nahanni: In the spirit of Thanksgiving… we are grateful for your financial support. Please consider making a donation at jwa.org. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone… until next time. I’m Nahanni Rous.

[Archival audio fades]

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 26: A Thanksgiving Seder (Transcript)." (Viewed on September 18, 2019) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-26-a-thanksgiving-seder/transcript>.

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