Recently, a young Israeli wrote me and asked me about Thanksgiving. He did not know what the holiday was about and was curious whether it was a religious holiday. How can one explain Thanksgiving to a non-American? I think most Americans would agree that it is the best “exclusively” American holiday. It occurred to me that a team of political scientists could not have put together a better holiday. I explained that the holiday celebrates the Pilgrims’ survival in 17th-century New England. The Pilgrims were, of course, a very religious people and their first Thanksgiving was very much a religion-oriented holiday. I told the young Israeli that the Pilgrims, while Christians, were attracted to and often used Jewish biblical images to describe their faith and struggles. They often said they were building a “New Jerusalem” in America. And I told him that the holiday reminds all Americans that even the oldest of old stock Americans were once immigrants who struggled to survive in their new land. And there is one more great touch — the Pilgrims could not have survived without the aid of Native Americans. Thus we are reminded that America was inhabited before Europeans came and that most immigrants to America were helped by someone who came here before them.
Is Thanksgiving a religious holiday today? I told the young Israeli that it is a perfect example of most Americans’ attitude towards religion. The holiday still has a vaguely religious sensibility to it. For most Americans, the thanks we give are to God. But it is left to every American home to decide whether to make the holiday very religious, a little religious, or not religious at all. What a perfect American “quasi-religious” holiday! It touches on the general American sense that “we” are a religious people — but each American is free to decide how to express or not express the religious aspect of the holiday in the privacy of his or her own home. Finally, even the foods are adaptable. The traditional foods are American — turkey and cranberries in particular. But virtually every immigrant group or American region expresses its identity in some of the dishes they serve or the way they prepare the traditional foods. Yes, Thanksgiving is the perfect American holiday.
Below is an autobiographical piece that my late great aunt, Anne Krasner, wrote. It is the story of her first “real” Thanksgiving celebration. The time period is the late 1920s. It was first published in the New York Jewish Week in 1988.
A LONG TIME AGO my mother, two sisters, and I arrived from the shtetl in Poland to join my father in America. From Ellis Island we came to our apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
In September, we entered a public school near our home and began our lives as American children. That November we did not know enough English to understand the meaning or story of Thanksgiving. So the day had no special celebration — no special food — only that school was closed.
We were poor, and either because of limited income or ethnic background, we did not have meat for dinner every day. We had more dairy than meat dinners each week and it almost a ritual to eat dairy on Monday and Thursdays. So on our second Thanksgiving, Mama served her usual Thursday dinner — potatoes and milk and borscht and sour cream.
My sisters and I — sooner than our parents, of course — quickly learned the language and assimilated to the ways of America. By the time the third November rolled around, we confronted Mama with our knowledge of being American. We excitedly told her the story of Thanksgiving — Pricilla, John Alden, the turkey. And my sister added, “Mama, maybe we shouldn’t eat sour borscht on Thanksgiving when all Americans celebrate by eating a good turkey dinner. This is an American holiday, and we are Americans!”
Mama joined in our enthusiasm and joyfully agreed to make a fine turkey dinner on Thanksgiving.
Finally, the excitement of our holiday began. The delicious smells of roasting and baking wafted from the kitchen through the apartment. We were busy helping set the table with Mama’s best tablecloth and dishes, modest though they were. And just as we were about to be seated to partake of this delectable holiday feast, the doorbell rang.
In those days people did not telephone – we didn’t even have a phone – nor did they wait for an invitation to visit. People came to visit whenever they felt like it. Doors were not locked, there were no peepholes, no security checks, no previous arrangements necessary. When the doorbell rang you just called out, “Come in,” or went to open the door to admit and greet whoever rang. In our holiday mood, we sang out, “Come in,” as well as rushing to open the door.
There stood my aunt, uncle, and their three children, who had traveled all the way from Newark, New Jersey. Immigrants also, they did not know about celebrating the holiday in the traditional manner. But because school was out they came to visit.
Mama and Papa greeted them with their usual warm hospitality. And Mama immediately started re-arranging the table settings, finding every broken-down chair and stool, even borrowing some from the next door neighbor. This turkey feast – which we had so looked forward to – now had to be shared with five more people.
Mama called my sisters and me into the kitchen to give us a hurried and emphatic lesson in hospitality.
A visitor in your home must be invited to share your bounty – meager or sumptuous.” Then she told us that we could dip the delicious, freshly baked bread into the turkey drippings and quickly fill up while she joined the company in the parlor. Then, when we sit down to eat, she warned, we must look happy to share. “After all”, she reminded us, “Thanksgiving should be shared. That is really the spirit of the holiday – not just the turkey!”
I still carry with me my mother’s old-world values and gracious lessons in hospitality. But the real feeling – concealed by pretending to be happy watching our company eating our much-anticipated dinner – I must confess, I also remember. But not so tenderly!