One of the many things that I’ve learned over the years I’ve spent in Jewish journalism is how themes seem to surface. It’s not logical — they’re not tied to a season or event, or at least not in any clear way. They just seem to sort of happen.
Right now, the stories that have been bubbling up have to do with America as a concept, as an escape from the dangers and constrictions of the Old World, and also about how the connections among Jews tie us both to each other and to the country that has given us so much.
Last week, in our cover story, Alexander Smukler talked about how his discovery of his Jewishness propelled him from the former Soviet Union across the Atlantic to New York and then New Jersey. This week, Inna Vayner talks about how she uses her multifaced understanding of Jewish life both here and there to find people’s relatives and help them discover their history.
This week, also, we write about Max Gross’s dyspeptic view of the shtetl, as well as the eastern European cultures that surrounded it, and also of the American tourists who, in his imagination, flood it with boorish entitlement. (To be fair, his book, “The Lost Shtetl,” also is funny and loving.)
So many shtetls! So little time!
Because Thanksgiving is coming.
For many of us, Thanksgiving is a time of pure joy. Some of us are lucky because we’ve been born into — or married into, or have chosen — families whom we love, and who love us. I am extraordinarily lucky with that; my Thanksgivings, almost every single one of them, have been spent with the same people, or their children, and in some cases their grandchildren, and I adore them. We don’t argue about politics or religion, because we share them. We don’t fight about football games, because we don’t watch them. We don’t squabble over food, because there’s more than enough, and always at least one favorite for each person.
I recognize my luck and I am enormously thankful for it.
This year will be an odd Thanksgiving for just about all of us. Not lonely like last year, each tiny little group of us, huddled around a Zoom screen — Zoom’s great, and we’d all be infinitely worse, sadder, lonelier without it — but no one’s figured out how to make food smells waft through the little boxes.
This year’s an intermediate year. We can get together, but carefully. No one’s quite sure what the rules are this year. Some of us can share a meal, but how many? Where? How far apart? And how do we get there? Fly, and risk not only the virus but also the crazy people assaulting each other on planes? Drive, and try to work on the zen of unmoving traffic? If only teleporting were an actual thing…
This year, also, the divisions that keep many of us at each other’s throats are getting worse. It’s hard to see how this will end, except very badly, unless somehow people can figure out a way to stop the anger, stop the bitterness, stop the reflexive unthinking bile that has us at each other’s throats.
I have no idea how that could happen, I just know that it has to.
And then I think about how America always has been a beacon. We can sentimentalize, of course; coming here was hard, and a lot of people tried and suffered and failed. The streets were not paved with gold. Often they weren’t paved at all, just full of mud covering sharp stones. Some of our ancestors came here and worked hard and enjoyed very few pleasures, sacrificing themselves for us, their children and grandchildren. Thanksgiving is a time to remember them too.
And in the end, because this is a season of physical glory, of skies so blue that they can make you cry, of white clouds that move so quickly that you can imagine yourself riding one of them toward the sun, of leaves that are so orange and so red and so vivid that you try to will yourself to remember them, even though you’ll know that you’ll forget, and of sunlight that comes at an angle that makes you want to gasp with joy, because of all that, I will take Thanksgiving on its own terms. As a time of love and family and friendship, a time of gratitude, and, maybe, possibly, hope for the future. A future that despite everything we will work toward together.
We wish all our readers a Thanksgiving of peace and good food and laughter and hope.