THANKS...BUT FOR WHAT?
ByDr. Ronald A. Brauner
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite American holiday. As a Jew, my choices of American celebration have always been quite limited - Christmas is obviously out even though a fellow Jew was the composer (and, come to think of it, another fellow Jew is the celebrant) of one of its most enduringly popular songs ("I'm dreaming of. . ."). Easter is out - my office doesn't close at noon on a particular Friday and I've never been invited to an egg rolling marathon on the White House lawn. Veteran's Day, which I presume was the invention of entrepreneurs, is clearly the occasion for special merchandise sales. Memorial Day, as everyone knows is the solemn national occasion for picnics, some short expression (usually in very small towns) of civic pride (thank God for the American Legion!) and, again, special merchandise sales.

New Years Eve doesn't work -- I don't drink heavily and I don't understand the words of "Auld Lang Syne" (and Guy Lombardo is dead). For fun, see if you can run up a list of comparisons and contrasts between what happens on January 1 and what we did this past Rosh Hashana.

President's Day won't fly - I don't have any money left for more special merchandise sales that characterize the spirit of the day, a spirit relieved only by the antitoxins found on A&E and PBS. Flag Day, despite Betsy Ross's best seamstress talents, just won't cut it. In my neighborhood, for instance, the flag is flying somewhere every day of the week and lots of people are urging their legislators to enact new laws making it a federal crime to do anything nasty to the flag and . . .all this in the name of democracy.

Halloween seems to have lost its special touch in American life. I know lots of people who look worse in real life than the masks kids wear and, I contribute to UNICEF on a more-or-less regular basis.

Basically, the point of all this is to lament the waning of the celebration of religious values in American life. Of course, I'm not talking about violating the magnificent Constitutional separation of church and state or in any way reverting to what has been, in human experience, coercion, intimidation and spiritual oppression. What I am indeed talking about is the paucity of occasions upon which fellow Americans set aside special times to ponder the timeless. And Thanksgiving seems to have it all. For starters, and thanks to our Founding Fathers and Mothers, all the foods consumed for the holiday can be eaten by Jews (think what it would be like with the wild boar as the symbol for the occasion!). Secondly, Thanksgiving always occurs on a Thursday, making Shabbat compromises unnecessary. Next, Thanksgiving is celebrated at around a large meal - now if that doesn't sound familiar and comfortable for Jews, then I don't know what does. Moreover, people of all religious (and non-religious) backgrounds can celebrate Thanksgiving; Moses didn't say it was a mitzvah, Buddha never heard of it and Jesus's Last Supper did not include turkey and stuffing!

We Jews, from whom the celebration of Sukkot was taken as the model by the Pilgrims in establishing Thanksgiving, are in a wonderful position to help bring back religious values into an overly secularized and value-deficient American culture. Thanksgiving, a great time to ponder the power of home celebration and a great time to re-address the values upon which our country is based. A time to contemplate the place of God in our lives and a time to think about the moral and ethical dimensions of human behavior. A time to exercise a bit of Heschel's "radical amazement" and a time to meditate on Mordecai Kaplan's "godliness" of which all people are capable. Enjoy the food, drink to life, revel in the joy of family together and find a moment or two to imagine the majesty of the many blessings which have come to all of us!
 

1998, Foundation for Jewish Studies, Inc.