November 22, 2021
Like many first-generation Americans, my mother loved Thanksgiving. She emigrated in 1939 with her parents, fleeing the Nazis as they invaded Prague. She believed 100 percent in the dream of the Statue of Liberty as a beacon of freedom and welcome to the world's "tired and poor" escaping to these shores. And she loved gathering with family and friends for Thanksgiving -- so quintessentially American.
There was always turkey and dressing, of course -- often cornbread dressing. Homemade cranberry relish. I think there was usually a yellow Jell-o salad that featured canned pineapple, Red Delicious apple, and maybe celery? I know there was always her mango mousse, made with jarred mango and cream cheese and Jell-o, decanted in a bright shining ring. Sweet potato casserole. Texas pecan pie.
I don't miss the Jell-o salads, but I miss Mom's festive table.
In recent years, as I've started following more Native voices on Twitter, I've become increasingly aware that for their communities the arrival of white Europeans on these shores was catastrophic. Smallpox blankets, land theft, forced relocation, boarding schools that forbade the transmission of Native languages -- the shameful list goes on. This holiday looks different against that background.
The Washington Post had an article about that recently: This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later. I read it when they first ran it, and it's been lingering on my mind and in my heart. (There are some excellent links below to pieces by Native Americans about this holiday and these issues -- I recommend all of them.)
I don't think my mom would have been especially interested in talking about any of that. Her immigrant experience caused her to see this nation and its history through rose-colored glasses. (That's why she instructed us to sing "America The Beautiful" at her funeral. Well, that, and "Jerusalem of Gold," but that's another story.) I don't think she would have been able to hear these Native narratives.
Many of my rabbinic forebears wrote prayers framing the American custom of the Thanksgiving feast in Jewish language of miracle and gratitude. Here's one from Reb Zalman z"l. Here's one from 1940 by Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. Here's a 2018 Haggadah for Thanksgiving. I love the idea of foregrounding gratitude (there's a reason modah ani is my favorite prayer!) but none of these feel right to me.
These prayers are lofty and beautiful, rooted in Jewish ideals and traditions. And these prayers elide, or ignore, the Native experience of dispossession. Many of them draw on the happy tale of Puritan-Wampanoag hospitality, but that story is a fiction. The truth is a lot messier. I feel like as white folks we need a little bit of Yom Kippur liturgy instead: forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
Our tradition is clear that for sins against other human beings, we need to seek their forgiveness before we seek God's. What does it mean for us as Jews -- many of whose ancestors came here fleeing trauma somewhere else -- to accept some responsibility for how we (many of us*) benefit from being white and of European descent, here where white European colonists displaced and harmed indigenous peoples?
And (how) can that impulse share space with a yearning for Thanksgiving, maybe especially this year? I love an autumnal feast, especially now that I live where turkeys and cranberries naturally thrive. And this year I'm keenly aware that because my sister and I are both vaccinated against COVID-19, I will get to celebrate Thanksgiving with a beloved family member, which last year was impossible.
So this year I'm sitting with that disjunction. The history of colonialism is awful. The harm that white people have done to Native Americans since Europeans (and others) began settling on these shores is almost inconceivable. The Thanksgiving story as I learned it in childhood ignores that harm. And the joy I feel at the prospect of being able to safely feast on turkey with a family member is still real.
If you want to read more:
- The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story (Indian Country Today)
- A Thanksgiving Message from Seven Amazing Native Americans (Project 562)
- What does Thanksgiving mean to Native Americans? (Native Hope)
- Decolonizing Thanksgiving (Makamham)
- Not about Thanksgiving, but awesome: Returning to my Native Roots this Sukkot (Bechol Lashon)
- Some voices I learn from on Twitter: @NativeApprops, @Native4Data, @Kisha890, @SonkWaban, @Savannah_Maher, @josephvlee
*Obviously not all Jews are white or of European descent. It's not my intention to minimize the existence of Jews of color, Sephardi Jews, or Mizrahi Jews. Rather to say: for those of us whose families (like mine) came here from Europe, what responsibility do we have to recognize the privilege that our appearance and our backgrounds afford us, and what do we owe to Native folks?