The Thanksgiving leftovers may be nibbled over and gone, but still I can’t get Thanksgiving out of my mind. Even as we sat around our holiday table reveling in the company of family and the joy of delicious food, I was thinking about a brief exchange I saw on morning TV the day before the holiday. That morning, the banter on trends and culture was about a list of news items, ending with a question posed to the show’s threesome of commentators: Matt Lauer asked them for their favorite Thanksgiving dinner foods. When one of them noted a favorite ham (or pork) dish, another commentator noted that this wouldn’t work for Jews, since Jews don’t eat pork. So what’s a Jew to do?

I marveled at this brief and spontaneous banter on the nation’s most watched morning program. Surely, they must know that kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, are not observed by all Jews (especially since a couple of the commentators are Jewish.) I’ll bet that one of them may know that Muslims don’t eat pork as a matter of shari’a law, which, by the way, is observed by a higher percentage of Muslims than kashrut is for Jews. But most noteworthy was that we Jews, who are something like 3% (or less) of the population of America, got mentioned at all. This wasn’t a discussion of religious practices – it was pitched as fun prelude to the Thanksgiving feast. Isn’t Thanksgiving an all-American holiday – one that unites us as Americans, momentarily erasing ethnic and religious differences? The endnote of the segment left this viewer (and probably many others) wondering how Jews uniquely celebrate this quintessential American holiday.

There are a few ways to slice this. One may say that the very notion of our uniqueness echoes painful anti-Semitic canards. Another view is that this is yet another demonstration of just how much we Jews have “made it” in America, not just blending in, but more – influencing culture and thought and, of course, entertainment, far beyond our numbers.

Both would be right. But I had a different reaction, finding resonance in both the Jewish and American aspects of my family’s Thanksgiving experience. My family is inspired by the Jewish Food Movement, with its focus on justice in the treatment of farm and food production workers, the care of the earth and the animals we eat, as well as concern for nutrition and health. For us, these values jump off the pages of the Jewish sacred texts. So, we are careful to buy free-range, grain-fed poultry, and mostly fresh ingredients for everything else. With four vegetarians out of the 12 people at our table, we serve a variety of colorful vegetable dishes in addition to the stuffing and sweet potatoes. And since we find value in the Jewish sacred eating requirements of kashrut, we only use kosher turkey and do not use dairy products in any of our food preparations.

This may sound like a lot of restrictions, but it isn’t really; it’s just a matter of choices. In fact, our Jewish cultural background added to the delight of our feast – our pumpkin squash soup contained sweet potato matza balls (a Sukkot recipe I found in a new Jewish cookbook that has become a family favorite.) Our Thanksgiving dinner was delicious and plentiful, and we had much cause for gratitude and celebration. As I thought about the TV conversation, I was struck by how much my family’s Thanksgiving was both American and Jewish at the same time in wonderful ways.

That seemed like as good a realization as any, especially as we enter the December holiday season. This time of year challenges us as Jews, and as Americans as well.
As Christmas celebrations, decorations and culture inundate us; our Jewish selves can be eclipsed. It is not easy to navigate this time of year while keeping perspective on the meaning of being a Jew. Jewish values that are most resonant at this time of year are indeed unique: such as Chanukah’s core meaning of dedication to the covenant of the Jewish people (the word Chanukah means “dedication”). Other Jewish values, for example: being satisfied with what we have, being grateful for the gift of each day and seeking to be spiritually holy people who pursue justice, run counter to the consumer frenzy of this season in America.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, z’l, the founder of Reconstructionism, framed it well when he said that we have a great opportunity to live in two civilizations: the Jewish and the American. This is a privilege that our great grandparents did not have. But to sustain the great value of this privilege we should constantly ask ourselves the question raised, oddly enough, by a quintessential American voice, the Today Show: “What’s a Jew to do?” This time of year, their voicing that question was a gift in itself, and for that, I give thanks.

Happy Chanukah!

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