Jews And Thanksgiving



Main imageOpinions may vary about observance, but all agree that gratitude is a good thing.

In colonial America, from time to time, a governor would proclaim a day of thanksgiving, expressing gratitude to God for surviving or prospering. In those days, Thanksgiving had not yet become a yearly event.

Even then, Thanksgiving was a government holiday, proclaimed by the state to encourage a religious attitude in its largely Christian citizenry. Does that make Thanksgiving kosher for Jews?

The oldest Jewish congregation in America, Congregation Shearith Israel, thought so. Whenever the governor of New York decided a day of Thanksgiving was needed, Shearith Israel in New York City (known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue), would adjust its prayers to join in. That happened every time except twice, when the governor called for specifically Christian prayers. Then Shearith Israel respectfully declined to take part.

Thankgiving changed as a holiday during the Lincoln administration. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the most popular women’s magazine in America, had advised one president after another to proclaim an annual day of Thanksgiving. She finally succeeded in 1863, when President Lincoln proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November in gratitude for the prosperity and strength of a country at war. Sorry, Lincoln made no mention of Pilgrims.

Like the leaders of Shearith Israel, other Jews also enthusiastically joined in Thanksgiving. An American holiday, Thanksgiving does not belong to any religious denomination. Jews who would feel squeamish about Christmas or Easter celebrations could join with other Americans in celebrating this holiday.

Various Perspectives

Larry Berkove

The vast majority of American Jews feel at home celebrating Thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, a happy blend of American and Jewish ideals,” says Larry Berkove of Southfield. “From my childhood until the present, my family has always celebrated it with a traditional dinner of turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Since I started my own family, I always remind those around the table of its inner meaning and that we are not offering thanks to the empty air.”

Berkove, a member of Young Israel of Oak Park, stresses the religious significance of the festival.

The religious theme that endears Thanksgiving to Berkove bothers some Jews in the Orthodox community. They do not celebrate Thanksgiving, noting its roots outside the Jewish tradition. One famous rabbi of the previous generation, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, thought “the prohibition is simple and obvious” that Jews should not do Thanksgiving, “a gentile holiday.”

Rabbi Yosef Lange of Oak Park seems less than enthusiastic about the traditional Thanksgiving because he finds it not religious enough: “We, as Jews, must be thankful every day for what HaShem does for us, and it is not a once-a-year event. Thanksgiving today has become a celebration of eating with no religious purpose.”

Herschel Gardin

Not everyone has ideological reasons for unusual observances on Thanksgiving. Herschel Gardin of Oak Park says, “Coming from a European family — I’m first-generation American — Thanksgiving was really a foreign notion and not really celebrated. However, growing up in day school, which featured a late-night Talmud class with supper provided and sleep-away yeshivahs, I thought of Thanksgiving as a hot-dog-on-buns (with baked beans) treat night. I am not sure if this choice of delicacy had some sort of hidden symbolism for those in charge and/or planned evening menus, but we boys really liked it and looked forward to this menu.

Sharon Krasner
Sharon Krasner

“Our children also enjoyed hot dog night whenever we made them, but knew they were served on Thanksgiving. Our son, who was a chayal boded (a soldier without local family) in the Israel Defense Forces was provided with a traditional Thanksgiving, hosted by the IDF for Americans: turkey, corn, pumpkin pie, and a play by Israeli soldiers about the pilgrims and Indians. It was the first time he ever experienced the full celebration, and he was in a foreign country!”

It works well for Bobbie Lewis of Oak Park that Hershel Gardin does not invest in doing a traditional Thanksgiving feast. Gardin, her mechutan (her daughter’s father-in-law) provides no competition when she invites the younger generation for the holiday “so his parents don’t care that he and my daughter and granddaughters are always with my family for the holiday.”

It takes planning and compromise to do a Thanksgiving dinner across the kosher/non-kosher divide, often with beautiful results.

Sharon Krasner of Oak Park says, “I look forward to Thanksgiving because it’s pretty much the only holiday I get to spend with my siblings and their families. Because my family is the only Orthodox one and we don’t drive on yom tovim, we can’t get together with them for the other holidays, so it’s usually Thanksgiving and Chanukah for a big family meal.”

Michelle Sider

Michelle Sider of Huntington Woods and her family find more of a compromise.

“Because we are the only family members of our extended family that keep kosher and are shomer Shabbat, we have worked out specific ways to share this holiday together,” she says. “We decided that for family unity we would all make adjustments so we could enjoy the holiday together. Our family is incredibly accommodating, making a special kosher turkey for our family and preparing some side dishes that do not contain dairy.

“This attitude has been a wonderful means of maintaining close family ties and also works well for the vegan/lactose-intolerant/gluten-intolerant, etc., among us, and has also been a great means of teaching our kids about how to work together. I really enjoy Thanksgiving and hope to continue our family tradition for many years to come.”

By Louis Finkelman | Contributing Writer


Turkey In Hebrew
The bird is native to America, not Asia, and yet in English we call it “turkey.” In most other languages, including French and even Turkish, people call it some version of “the Indian bird.” So, too, in Hebrew: Tarnegolet hodu means “Indian chicken.” (The Hebrew word for India, hodu, is related to English words like “Hindu” and “India” and even “the Indus river.”) The Hebrew word hodu also means “give thanks.” It is the first word of Psalms 118:1 “Give thanks to God, for he is good,” the perfect verse for the holiday of Thanksgiving.


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