Have you been called a “Jew”?
Over the years that I have been involved with the Jewish gift shop, Mazel Tov Gifts, I have observed an interesting trend when there is a Thanksgiving/Chanukah overlap.
When Chanukah falls very close to Thanksgiving, many people won’t do their Chanukah shopping until the last minute — some years, only hours before Chanukah. The reason, they would say, was because they had been busy getting ready for Thanksgiving.
It seems to me that many Jews are very particular about celebrating Thanksgiving. What causes everyone to observe this American holiday so religiously, more than the others? And what lesson can we glean from Chanukah following on its heels?
In Judaism, we have three harvest festivals:
Passover comes during the time of the wheat harvest, Shavuot is during the barley harvest and Sukkot is what the Torah calls “the Festival of Ingathering,” which includes fruit and other crops.
Here in America, we have many festivals: the apple festival, cranberry festival, the trailing of the sheep festival, pecan festival, the Arizona Taco festival and many more.
Yet none of these are called Thanksgiving, because Thanksgiving is not just another festival celebrating a bumper crop of that year. Rather, the celebration of Thanksgiving comes with more meaning than just a bountiful crop.
It was a giving of thanks for a new land, an oasis in a world full of religious persecution. It was the establishment of a democracy, a place where everyone would have the ability to worship freely.
The Pilgrims gave thanks for the produce and the food that the new land produced, but more importantly, they were expressing their deep gratitude and joy. After making the difficult journey across the pond (which was no simple matter several hundred years ago), they finally were able to live and practice their faith in freedom, on the shores of the Americas.
Where does the name “Jew” come from?
When our matriarch Leah gave birth to her fourth son she said, “I will give thanks to You, G-d.” She called him Yehuda, from the word “hodaah,” thanks. Leah felt so grateful for all the blessings granted to her by G-d, which had exceeded her prayers.
Throughout our history, we Jews have been called many names. But “Yehudi,” from Yehuda, which means Jew, is the name that stuck. This name that Leah gave is the one that fully expresses who we are, at our core.
Every morning when we wake up, the first thing we say while still in bed, is the prayer “Modeh Ani.”
I give thanks before You, living and eternal King, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion; abundant is Your faithfulness!
We are grateful to G-d and we acknowledge it with the above mentioned prayer.
Perhaps this is why Jews celebrate Thanksgiving so stringently, as if it truly were a religious holiday.
Because part and parcel of who we are is to be “Yehudim,” always giving thanks to the Creator for the blessings He gives us.
This is also the connection between Thanksgiving and Chanukah, a holiday celebrating religious freedom from the persecution and intolerance of the Syrian Greeks.
As we say in the blessings prior to lighting the Menorah, “Blessed are You, Lord our G d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.”
The reason we celebrate Chanukah is not just to commemorate an event of two thousand years ago, but to incorporate its lessons from “in those days, at this time,” — into our lives today.
So let’s celebrate Chanukah in freedom by eating latkes and other holiday favorites, kindling the menorah, and most importantly, by remembering its message of adding light and warmth into this world.
This year, have extra kavana when you make the blessings on the candles thanking G-d for the miracles that took place in those days, and in our times as well.
May we indeed see open and revealed miracles, in Israel, the U.S. and wherever we live.
Happy Thanksgiving and a very bright and joyous Chanukah! JN
Rabbi Yossi Levertov is the director at Chabad of Scottsdale and dean of the new Yeshiva high school in Scottsdale.