What is your earliest Thanksgiving memory? Was Thanksgiving a big deal at your house when you were a kid? It certainly was at ours. And not always in a good way, I might add.
Thanksgiving holds a place of respect in many Jewish households. One reason for this is that gratitude is deeply ingrained in Jewish tradition. Observant Jews like myself (and I am not Orthodox by any means) thank God many times during the day, expressing appreciation for the many gifts He has given us. We have separate blessings that we say over different types of food, thanking God for the fruit of the trees, the fruit of the ground, the grain of the field, etc. We say a prayer of thankfulness when we open our eyes in the morning and when we lie down to sleep at night. And, yes (don’t laugh), when we use the rest room we pray that the Lord has created us with all the proper bodily functions.
So a holiday that centers on thankfulness fits right in with our traditions. But it is more than that. As a uniquely American celebration, Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays during the year that all of us can celebrate, regardless of religion or beliefs. Even atheists are thankful for the gifts in their lives. Jews of a traditional bent don’t recognize Christmas, Easter or even Halloween (although many Jews living a more modern, integrated lifestyle do), as these celebrations are based in other faiths. There are other American festivals, of course, such as the summer holidays (Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day), when we always barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers or headed to the lake for the day. But all of these pale in comparison to Thanksgiving. In some respects, one could say that Turkey Day is the granddaddy of American holidays. The Pilgrims feasted with the Native Americans in 1621, long before any of the Big Summer Three were a twinkle in the colonists’ eyes.
My favorite thing about Thanksgiving is that it is truly a celebration that we can all enjoy. There are few of us who aren’t thankful for something, and who doesn’t like stuffing his or her face?
Until I was ten years old, we generally had Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ apartment, 2½ hours away in Connecticut. After that, they moved to Florida and we did Thanksgiving at home in the New York suburbs (except for once or twice when we were invited to feast at my aunt and uncle’s apartment in The Bronx).
As much as I loved riding to New Haven to visit my grandparents, there were a few hazards associated with celebrating Thanksgiving there. The sense of jubilation and anticipation that we experienced on the way up there was always tempered with a measure of anxiety. We never knew which mine we would end up stepping on this time.
You see, Grandma and Grandpa did not have a religious bone in their bodies. While they were ethnically Jewish, they never prayed, attended synagogue or participated in any of the rituals associated with Jewish holidays. They were strictly secular. I, on the other hand, attended a very Orthodox religious elementary school (due to the insistence of my mother), where I learned every detail of every Jewish rule and custom (and that anything enjoyable was probably a sin).
As disgusted as they were with my religious “brainwashing,” my grandparents knew how things stood and made at least a nominal effort to accommodate. My grandmother would buy a kosher turkey and roast it with potatoes and vegetables. Dessert was usually an issue. When the pie or the Pepperidge Farm cake came out, I would insist on seeing the box so that I could read the ingredients. “Not kosher!” I would indignantly pronounce, pointing out the gelatin or glycerin in the ingredients. I would then run off crying to another room because I would miss out on dessert.
If it wasn’t that, then my grandparents would start griping about my weight, inevitably engendering an argument with my parents. Grandma might, for example, attempt to serve me a diet soda, which my parents prohibited me from drinking due to the deadly chemicals contained therein. For years, my father enjoyed a running joke about my grandparents presenting me with “a case of Patio Diet Cola and a funnel.”
And if it wasn’t that, then my mother would get into it with her mother-in-law. The two entertained a mutual hatred of each other from the time that my parents began dating as teenagers. Once voices were raised, my grandfather would feel the necessity to come to his wife’s defense and my father would attempt to intervene and get everyone to “stop it already.” That was usually about the time we’d head for the door.
Another memorable Thanksgiving occurred when I was in college and my sisters were still in high school. I would come home for Thanksgiving, of course (I had to, as the dorms were closed). My mother had taken a job in New England not long before. My father continued to work in New York. My sisters were with my mother; my parents commuted back and forth on the weekends. In Rhode Island, seafood is king. After all, it is the Ocean State. The local joke was to refer to fish as “Block Island turkey.” Although we all convened in New York for Thanksgiving, my mother had to work in Rhode Island on the previous day and had no time to prepare a festive meal. As we didn’t eat meat in restaurants (because it wasn’t kosher), we ended up enjoying Block Island turkey at a local diner. My youngest sister, a surly teenager who made a science out of being miserable, announced at dinner that this was a stupid holiday because she really didn’t have anything to be thankful for anyway. As you may well imagine, that went over like a ton of bricks and put more than a bit of a damper on the occasion.
Not that I was shocked or anything. I had learned years earlier that it wasn’t Thanksgiving without a family fight.