Baruch Atah America… The Secular Sukkot?

by Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky

Judaism sometimes has a bum rap- sad music, sad holidays… We even have a slogan for it: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” But occasionally we American Jews get a bonus. We don’t just dress up in costumes and eat sweets for Halloween, we get Purim too! And we don’t just get one Fall harvest festival (Sukkot), we get the mother of all feasts (which in part was inspired by Sukkot): Thanksgiving.

Every American rabbi and cantor I know has a deep love for Thanksgiving. What’s not to love? Family, food, a day off, and, for those sports aficionados, a plethora of football games. We rabbis and cantors love the day in particular because, since it’s not a synagogue-going fest, we’re “off-duty” and actually get the same chance as everyone else to commemorate a home-based holiday with our families. And since it’s always on a Thursday, there is no chance it will conflict with Shabbat. Party time!

I have always loved knowing how differently each family celebrates Thanksgiving, and how dramatically the cultural background of one’s family determines the course of the day. My small immediate family, for many years, used to have a very modest meal. No muss, no fuss. Shortly after I turned 18 years old, I was invited to a friend’s family member’s Thanksgiving celebration, which was the epitome of a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving. It was a full day’s celebration, and I saw what I was missing! Now I do my best to approach that level of celebration. Our table always has turkey, sweet potato soufflé, mashed potatoes, cranberry relish, etc., but if it’s not homemade, I just don’t feel right. We buy pre-made food all the time, so for this holiday I like to do something more out of the ordinary, which is to actually cook it myself!

I think we all create and re-create traditions for our families over time, and I love trying to make our Thanksgiving a major event of the year for the Kobilinskys. Part of the beauty of the day for me is how malleable it is. We can make it what we want it to be. I am reminded of the movie “What’s Cooking?” which came out 16 years ago, in 2000. The film depicts four families living in Los Angeles. The families come from quite different cultures, one Vietnamese, one African-American, one Jewish, and one Latino. Each family is dealing with its own brand of crisis, and the movie depicts how their lives intertwine. But the reason I love this movie is to see how unique each family’s Thanksgiving celebration is. The foods of the different households are dramatically different. The Vietnamese family serves steamed rice and stir-fried vegetables with their KFC-purchased fried chicken after their turkey burns. The Latino family has flan and arroz con leche for dessert. Oh, and always pumpkin pie.

I must admit, thinking about “What’s Cooking?” I feel a bit embarrassed that my own family’s Thanksgiving Day isn’t more influenced by our Jewish heritage. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of some ways in which to give your Thanksgiving some Jewish cultural flair.

Chag Thanksgiving Sameach! (Happy Thanksgiving Holiday!)

                Jewish Thanksgiving Ideas

  1. Say the Kiddush and Motzi to begin the meal
  2. Play Jewish music of thanks: Google one of my Israeli favorites, “Todah” by Uzi Hitman, or one of the multiple versions of “Hodu L’Adonai” from the Hallel prayers. There are probably hundreds of versions of the prayers of thanks from this set of blessings.
  3. Make one favorite dish from a different Jewish holiday to add to the Thanksgiving menu, such as latkes or matzah ball soup. Some dishes, prepared in bite-size portions, could work well to supplement your appetizers spread. Perhaps look in a recipe box passed down from an earlier generation, or your own copy of our Congregation B’nai Yisrael cookbook.
  4. Break out your tzedakah box (or make your own) and collect spare coins and bills to donate to a cause you all agree upon, for those less fortunate than ourselves.
  5. Create a “Seder” for Thanksgiving. Make a seder plate which includes symbols of what you are thankful for: a home, family, health, food to eat (small children’s toys are great for this purpose). Describe each item’s symbolism before beginning the meal. Retell the story of your family’s journey to America, much as we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt on Passover, or the family lineages described throughout Torah.