How Thanksgiving Helped Jews Shape a Piece of American History

Thanksgiving seems to have all the right ingredients for a holiday that most American Jews can embrace – it doesn’t fall on Shabbat, its roots and message aren’t sectarian, and its only real ritual is a multi-course meal. .

That is why prominent Orthodox rabbis of the mid-20th century, including Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, gave Thanksgiving its hechsher (stamp of approval). Shari Rabin, associate professor of Jewish studies and religion at Oberlin, told me that American Jews are comfortable with Thanksgiving for the most part because it is “not as directly connected to paganism or Christianity as Halloween or Christmas. “.

And yet, like many aspects of the American Jewish experience, Jews did not accept Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving did not accept Jews, without a fight. As demonstrated by a 19th-century skirmish between Jewish leaders in Pennsylvania and the governor of their state, Jews ensured that Thanksgiving was a day they could celebrate on an equal footing with Christians.

Long before President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a federal holiday in 1863, there were national and local “proclamations” officially establishing a day of gratitude each year. In the first year of his presidency, on October 3, 1789, George Washington issued a proclamation of Thanksgiving by the new government, designating “Thursday, November 26” as Thanksgiving.

TOM THE Turkey floats alongside Macy’s during New York City’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, spreading holiday cheer. (credit: AARON OF NEPA / FLICKR)

The proclamation calls for “a day of thanksgiving and public prayer to be observed in acknowledging with grateful hearts the many appointed favors of Almighty God,” religious, but not specifically Christian. Gershom Mendes Seixas, the cantor for the Shearith Israel Congregation in New York, welcomed the president’s statement in what is considered the first Jewish sermon on Thanksgiving.

Washington continues to ask gratitude “for the civil and religious freedom with which we are blessed,” a message consistent with its letter, a year later, to Seixas’ brother, Moses, of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, promising “freedom of conscience ”To all people, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Other Thanksgiving proclamations failed to convey Washington’s non-sectarian message. Many were, in fact, full of Christian language.

According to Laura Yares, assistant professor of Religious Studies at Michigan State University, when the United States was in its infancy, “there was no plan to create a non-sectarian holiday.” Yares told me that “in the long evolution of customs and language for celebrating Thanksgiving, it should come as no surprise to discover that there have been public figures who have used the cultural resources of their own traditions to describe Thanksgiving. Thank you, including Christian theology. “

And it was that kind of theology that sparked several Philadelphia Jews into what can only be described as a 19th-century version of a Twitter war.

In 1848, Pennsylvania Governor William Johnston issued a Thanksgiving proclamation calling for the day “to be set aside, by all denominations of Christians within this Commonwealth.”

That did not sit well with some Jews, and they made their displeasure known in the pages of The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, a Jewish newspaper published in Philadelphia.

The November issue of the newspaper quoted AT Jones, a Jew from Philadelphia, who complained to the governor that “the Israelites Never Forget praying for your rulers, but His Excellency seems not to remember their existence …[ing] them as if they weren’t worthy of it. ”Jones lamented that Jews“ fought and bled ”with their fellow Americans and expressed great disappointment at a proclamation that clearly omitted Jews from the Thanksgiving celebration.

The North American and United States Gazette, a secular Philadelphia newspaper, noted that a similar fight had broken out a few years earlier over a proclamation by then-Governor Francis Rawn Shunk. In an indulgent tone, the Gazette suggested that such proclamations “are rarely written by the governors themselves.”

The most powerful exchange, published in the same newspaper, was between a prominent Jewish lawyer in Philadelphia, Joseph Moss, and the governor himself, a few weeks before the holiday. Upon learning that Governor Johnston was in town, Moss immediately wrote, complaining that in a community with more than 15,000 Jews, the proclamation “appears to have completely lost sight of these unwavering followers of the Holy Bible.”

The governor responded the next day with an epic apology: “I cannot allow you to assume that the spirit of intolerance has a place in my bosom,” he wrote. “The terms of [the proclamation’s] the composition or its phraseology were not designated by me. It was issued by the Secretary of State during my absence, and I presumed [it] it would be in the usual way. ”

The governor concluded his response by officially inviting the Jewish community to celebrate Thanksgiving and signed it: “Really, your friend, Wm. F. Johnston “.

This resolution to avoid crisis, and the new “friendship” it supposedly created, sounds almost quaint after 170 years. But these mishaps in the proclamation of Thanksgiving, which occurred throughout the 19th century in various states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, became opportunities for Jews to assert themselves and insert themselves into the national narrative. .

Yares notes, “Since Moses Seixas’s letter to George Washington in 1790, Jews have openly and publicly taken on the task of forcing political leaders to uphold America’s commitment to the separation of church and state.”

Thanksgiving this year comes the Thursday before Hanukkah, and we’ll be thinking about our dual allegiance to turkey and latkes. Hanukkah celebrates the right of Jews to worship without being forced to follow the customs of the majority. Thanksgiving celebrates the ways that people of all faiths – and none – can express their appreciation on equal terms.

To paraphrase the maxim of the late 19th century Jewish philosopher Ahad Ha’am about Shabbat: more than the Jewish people have kept Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving has kept Jews, and allowed them to affirm constantly their rightful place in these United States. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

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