Thanksgiving: Put a Little Jewish Attitude in Your Gratitude

By Esther D. Kustanowitz

Quarantine Lag B'omer

Every November, Thanksgiving reminds us of several things: that it’s time to buy a turkey, tofurkey or a challurkey; that pumpkin spice and cranberry flavors take center stage at supermarkets and coffee shops; that December and the new year are right around the corner. But a special todah rabah (that’s ‘thank you!’) goes out to Thanksgiving for shining an annual light on gratitude. Even in a pandemic, in an America that is fractured, this moment urges us to reflect on what we are thankful for.

But is Thanksgiving a Jewish holiday? Should Jews celebrate? How do Jews celebrate? And since we know Thanksgiving this year will look different, how can we find extra meaning in celebrating differently?

There’s a number of Jewish things you can do to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, wherever you are.

Host a Holiday Debate: How Does Thanksgiving Relate to Jewish Holidays?

Nothing’s more Jewish than giving air to multiple opinions on a topic. So we’ll give you some starter points for your arguments:

  • Thanksgiving is the most like Passover, because of the big, sit-down ritual meal with traditional foods.
  • Thanksgiving is the most like Sukkot because Thanksgiving is about pilgrims and Sukkot was the end-of-the-harvest festival when pilgrims would come to the Great Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times.
  • Thanksgiving is the most like Chanukah, because you have one meal that sits in your stomach for eight days.
  • Thanksgiving is the most like Tu Bishvat, because there aren’t any Shabbat or holiday restrictions, it doesn’t require synagogue-going, and it celebrates produce, in this case, mostly pumpkins, cranberries and decorative gourds.

Explore the Wonder of “I am Grateful.”

Modeh/Modah Ani (or for non-binary, “Modim Anachnu”) is one of the first prayers many students are taught. Recently, Gal Gadot — that’s right, WONDER WOMAN herself — revealed to Vanity Fair that she starts off the day with Modeh Ani, giving gratitude:

“I say thank you every morning. In the Jewish culture, there’s a prayer that you’re supposed to say every time you wake up in the morning to thank God for, you know, keeping you alive and dadadada. You say ‘Modeh Ani,’ which means ‘I give thanks.’ So every morning I wake up and step out of bed and I say, ‘Thank you for everything, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.’ Nothing is to be taken for granted.”

To learn more about Modeh Ani, check out this video from My Jewish Learning: Modeh Ani: The Jewish Prayer For When You Wake Up . Or, you can sing it in a mashup between the classical prayer and Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” with Josh Niehaus and the Shul of Rock (via Camp Solomon Schechter) or enjoy this performance by Nefesh Mountain.

Express Your Gratitude

It’s your gratitude, so you get to choose how to express it, but we’ve provided some  virtual options to consider, to show your commitment to your own health and everyone else’s: pikuach nefesh (saving a life) is more important than pumpkin pie.

  • Of course, we all feel like there’s a lot to complain about. But using Thanksgiving to start a gratitude practice is totally doable–and maybe even more necessary–during a pandemic. Start a gratitude practice by Zooming, calling or writing a nice note to friends and family expressing your appreciation for them. General appreciation is good, but if you’ve got a special something that makes you grateful for a particular person, share it with them. We’ll start you off: “I especially remember the time that you did THIS for me; I appreciated it so much because REASON.”
  • One very Jewish way to express gratitude is to say a bracha: while some brachot are said before or after eating, others are said in gratitude for reaching a particular juncture or life moment. And while these blessings often invoke “Adonai Eloheinu,” a traditionally masculine form of referring to God, you can express gratitude differently if that doesn’t resonate for you: talk to “Shechinah,” the divine feminine, or to the “Source of Life” if anthropomorphizing God isn’t your thing.

See Food Differently

  • Being socially distant means you’re probably not all at the same long dining room table eating from the same serving plates. So why not use this opportunity to cater to your own food preferences? No need for vegans to smell roasted animal flesh, or for avowed carnivores to pretend a tofurkey is just as satisfying to them. Peanuts fans can enlist pretzels, jelly beans and toast to have a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and those of us who hate pie can have something else for dessert. Plus, preparing your own menu gives you something else to talk about during your Thanksgiving Zoom.
  • If you’re more of an internal meditative type who doesn’t respond to traditional prayer, imagine the journey of your food: from seed to plant to becoming raw ingredients that made their way to your table; it’s a good reminder that everything comes from somewhere, and every encounter is a step forward into the future.
  • Most of us are lucky enough to have plenty of food. But especially during a pandemic, there are people in need of the basics. Consider donating to a foodbank or food distribution center like West Side Campaign Against Hunger in New York City, SOVA West or SOVA Valley in Los Angeles, or Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, or check with your local school or synagogue about food drives and donation initiatives.

Wherever you go, whatever you do, do it safely. Wear a mask when you’re not eating, and stay distant from others, even if you haven’t seen them in a while. May this Thanksgiving be the only one under these conditions, and next year, may we say shehecheyanu, a grateful acknowledgment that we are at a new moment that we will be able to celebrate together. Happy Thanksgiving!

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer, editor and consultant based in Los Angeles.

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