Thanksgiving is a very Jewish holiday.
It brings the whole extended family around one table, safe in a warm room as the late November wind whips the last valiant bright leaves off the trees and the soggy piles of raked leaves yield underfoot.
The menu’s likely to be the same from year to year, and from table to table, and even some of the conversation’s likely to flow along long-cemented channels before it splashes out in new directions. There might be new babies, or babies turned into toddler; there might be adults who look, for the first time, strikingly older, who are moving more slowly, less steadily. There might be talk of nursery school, or high school, or college applications, or first jobs, or midcareer changes, or retirement, or organ recitals.
Wine will be poured, and most likely wine will be spilled. And then, to moans of oh-no-I-already-ate-too-much, dessert will appear. There will be the smells of cinnamon and apples and pumpkins and chocolate. And then small children will be packed into warm layers of coats and scarves and hats and mittens, tucked into car seats, and taken home; they’ll fall asleep listening to the sounds of their parents’ voices as they murmur to each other into the night.
Yes, this is an idealized version; not every family is as intact or as civil as this dream family, but dream families do exist. And the Jewishness of it is clear — the extended, intergenerational family, the traditions, the knowledge that across a vast space, most members of the community are doing more or less what you’re doing, with enough variation to make it personal, but not enough to keep it from being entirely identifiable.
And for observant Jews, the fact that they can drive to family, as they cannot on Shabbat or holidays, adds a layer of difference that allows them to relish the similarities.
Just as Thanksgiving is arguably the most Jewish of American civil holidays, it was authorized by the American president who was arguably the most Jewish in feel.
That was Abraham Lincoln — Father Abraham, as he often was called — whose powerful urge to justice, courage, and generosity resembled those of his biblical namesake, and whose overwhelming humility seems learned from Moshe, the greatest of all the biblical prophets, Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood said.
Rabbi Genack is the CEO of OU Kosher, which means that he oversees a huge international business. He is the rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah. And he also is an admirer of President Lincoln; he’s collected some of the 16th president’s letters, his house is full of prints and paintings of Lincoln, and his own worldview is colored by Lincoln’s words.
As a Jew, much about Abraham Lincoln feels familiar to Menachem Genack.
“Lincoln established Thanksgiving in October 1863, as the fourth Thursday in the month, a day of thanksgiving and prayer,” Rabbi Genack said. What does prayer have to do with it, and what did Lincoln have to do with prayer? “I always say that Lincoln was both our least and our most religious president,” he said.
“His relationship with religion was complicated,” he continued. “In his youth — I wouldn’t say he was an agnostic, but he was a scoffer. When he first ran for Congress, he lost, and people said that he wasn’t a churchgoer. But when he got older, he became much more religious.” It sounds almost contemporary; Lincoln never became a churchgoer, but he grew more and more “spiritual,” as people today say.
“He believed in a divine purpose,” Rabbi Genack said.
Lincoln had a hard and not atypical life. His mother died when he was a child, and so did a few siblings. His likely predisposition to melancholy was exacerbated by “the death of his son Willie, an extraordinarily talented child, who might have been another Lincoln,” Rabbi Genack said. His death “probably was because of typhoid, which they got from the drinking water taken from the Potomac.” Of the four sons he and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, had, only one survived to adulthood.
Melancholia — the poetic name for depression, was a prime Victorian disease in the first place, most likely because so many children died young, and so many adults died painfully and unexpected, that death was a constant companion. It drove Mrs. Lincoln — “a very gifted, sophisticated woman from a prominent Southern family,” Rabbi Genack said — mad. “People are unfair when they talk about her,” he added. “They weren’t sympathetic enough to the burdens she was carrying, especially during the war.”
And “melancholy,” he said, “is a Jewish quality.”
Rabbi Genack loves talking about Abraham Lincoln. “He knew the Bible very well,” he said. “He read it all the time, and used it for solace.” Lincoln had so assimilated the biblical text “that you can hear the biblical cadences in the great Second Inaugural speech,” the one that’s carved on the wall in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
“It’s both the greatest and the most religious American speech,” Rabbi Genack said. “If you look at the speeches that preceded it, you’ll see that they’re always triumphalist. This speech shows Lincoln’s humility.
“By the time Lincoln gave that speech,” on March 4, 1865, “the war was essentially won. But the speech is not about him, and it is not about the triumph of the victory. It is about the war as retribution for the sin of slavery. It asks how we dare presume to know what the Almighty proposes. The Almighty has his own purposes.
“Everything about Lincoln speaks about humility.”
Rabbi Genack moved on to the Gettysburg Address, which he called “the most important speech in American history.” Really, though, he added, Lincoln was wrong in that speech. “He said, ‘The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.’ That was a very poor prediction.”
Lincoln was a skilled politician, and so he was very good at presenting one face to the public and another to his confidantes, Rabbi Genack said. That’s what a politician does; that’s what a politician has to do, is supposed to do, and even should do. He quoted John F. Kennedy, who said wryly, “Every mother wants her son to grow up to be president of the United States — but not to be a politician.”
Lincoln was a politician. He knew how to earn trust, how to gauge when the public was ready to hear the deep truth and when it had to be placated with half-truths, with the real truth lying underneath, not quite in sight.
In response to a public letter from newspaper editor Horace Greeley, accusing Lincoln of being insufficiently avid to end slavery, Lincoln wrote, again publicly:
“I would save the Union. … If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it….”
At the same time, Rabbi Genack said, he already had drafted the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Lincoln is a man who wrote the greatest prose in American history, yet he had very little formal education,” Rabbi Genack said. He’s not proposing that Americans in search of literary greatness drop out of school, though. “Lincoln was a genius.” And his intellect did not stop at policy and writing. He also applied for and was granted a patent, for a device he’d invented to help boats float safely over shoals and other obstructions. He’s the only American president so far to have earned a patent.
Overall, “Lincoln had a Jewish quality,” he said.
Thanksgiving can be particularly important this year, Rabbi Genack said, because the nation is so torn, nerves are so raw, fear is so high, and the triumphalism that Abraham Lincoln decried is at fever pitch in some quarters. Thanksgiving, whose prime lobbyist for years was Sarah Hale, best known as the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” was created as a vehicle for healing the bloody wounds of the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln got to celebrate two Thanksgiving, in 1863 and 1864. He was assassinated in April of 1865.
So how did Menachem Genack, an Orthodox rabbi, develop his love for Abraham Lincoln?
He’s not exactly sure, he said, although he can trace it all the way back to his adolescence.
In 1940, Isaac and Rosa Matz Genack fled Lithuania with their son. The Genacks were in the diamond business, so they went first to Antwerp, then to Casablanca, then to Cuba, and then to New York, where their other three children, including Menachem, the youngest, was born.
Isaac Genack had been to Palestine in the 1920s; he was a fervent Zionist and tried to make aliyah but developed malaria and had to go back home. A cousin, Eliyahu Moshe Genachowski, who also went to Palestine and stayed, became a prominent Religious Zionist Knesset member.
The Genacks settled in Forest Hills, Queens, where Isaac Genack continued to work in the diamond trade, this time in Manhattan. Menachem went to the Yeshiva of Central Queens, on to MTA in Washington Heights, and then to Yeshiva University, where he became a protégé of the Rav, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, working with him to publish some of his work. “I was pretty close to Rabbi Soloveitchik; I took his class for very many years,” Rabbi Genack said. “He was the greatest mind of his time.”
Next, he headed a kollel at Touro College; and “in 1980 they asked me to head the Orthodox Union’s kosher department,” Rabbi Genack said.
OU Kosher is an organization that has changed tremendously as technology and globalization have reconfigured boundaries and changed people’s idea of what is possible. “We now have 9,000 plants in 80 different countries, because the nature of the economy has changed,” Rabbi Genack said. “OU Kosher is now 40 times bigger than it was when I took it over.
“I didn’t think that it would be very interesting when I took it over, but because of the nexus of halacha, commerce, and food technology — and there always is a measure of politics, including internal Jewish world politics — so that makes it very interesting.”
And what, again, about his love for Lincoln? “I love American history,” Rabbi Genack said. “I’m not sure exactly where it came from, but to a family of survivors, America is the ideal. And for our people — the Jews — we wouldn’t have survived without America. America created the idea of all men being created equal — and Lincoln was the best of America.”
Again, he said, “I don’t know when my love for American history started, but when I was a boy John Kennedy was president and I was enamored of him. I would memorize his speeches. And then there were the connections made between Kennedy and Lincoln, because they were both assassinated, and because both were proponents of civil rights.
“The American experience is important to Jews. Never in world history has there been a country as solicitous of Jews, and Jews never have risen to the heights in so many areas as we did here.
“I always tell my kids that if you want to read a book of mussar” — of moral discipline — “read a biography of Lincoln.
“Lincoln was so extraordinary, in terms of his gifts and his integrity, his intelligence. He didn’t just blunder into things. He was always willing to admit a mistake, to acknowledge that he was wrong and someone else was right.”
He is not the only person to be fascinated by Abraham Lincoln. “There have been about 18,000 books about him,” Rabbi Genack said. “That is more than have been written about anyone else.” International borders do not restrain the love of Lincoln from being felt overseas. “My wife and I were in London recently, and we went to Parliament Square,” he added. It’s lined with statues of great statesmen, almost all British, including Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill. It includes three foreigners; one of those three is our Mr. Lincoln.
Through his passion for Abraham Lincoln, Rabbi Genack met someone else who perhaps surprisingly has become a real friend. It’s President Bill Clinton.
“I became friendly with Bill Clinton at an event in New Jersey, when I introduced him,” Rabbi Genack said. “He was then the governor of Arkansas; he’s a Southern Baptist, and very familiar with the Bible. I said that ‘The Bible tells us that when there is no vision, the people will perish.’” (It’s from Proverbs 29.) “He said, ‘I like this line. I will use it at my acceptance speech at the convention.’
“I thought he was joking, but that was his rhetorical pivot at his acceptance speech at the convention. When there is no vision, the people perish.” (That was the speech Mr. Clinton gave at Madison Square Garden in 1992, soon after the strains of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” quieted.)
“So we began a correspondence about the presidency.” Those letters were published in 2013, in “Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership.”
“One of the letters I wrote to him ended up being prescient,” Rabbi Genack said. “It was about why the kingship goes through Judah, not Joseph. Rabbi Soloveitchik asked this question. The answer is that what we look for is not perfection” — traditionally Joseph has come to be seen as perfect, while Judah’s imperfections, particularly in his dalliance with Tamar, are unmistakable. “We look for the ability to admit a mistake.
“The tension between Joseph and Judah is like a red thread through the Bible,” he added.
Rabbi Genack owns a few letters from Lincoln — one that he wrote, one that he signed — and it is extraordinary to look at them. They’re encased in protective sleeves, so you don’t actually touch them, but they’re there. A piece of paper that once was on Lincoln’s desk, partially covered by his arm as his hand scratched out his signature, is now in front of you. It is incredibly moving.
He also owns one of four portraits by Freeman Woodcock Thorp, an artist who actually had seen Lincoln twice — once at a whistle-stop, the other on the battlefield at Gettysburg. The painting looks like the Lincoln we know and see in photographs, but somehow, despite everything, a bit younger.
There is some debate in some part of the Orthodox world about whether it is permissible for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving. “Rabbi Soloveitchik gave classes on Thanksgiving, but I remember that once he said ‘I am giving an early class today because later I have to fly to Boston for my Thanksgiving dinner,’” Rabbi Genack said.
But there is a great deal about it that is unequivocally Jewish, Rabbi Genack said. “The idea of giving thanks is Jewish. We thank haShem, especially in times of joy. We always say ‘Tov l’hodot laShem’” — “It is good to give thanks to God,” from Psalm 92 — at hallel. We say it at times of redemption.”
And do he and his family celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course, Rabbi Genack said. “Who am I to disagree with Lincoln and Rabbi Soloveitchik?”