Complicated thanks



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:


*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? 

For those who are struggling this thanksgiving


In the United States today is Thanksgiving, a day for cultivating gratitude and giving thanks. I'm a big fan of both of those things. And I also know that there are times when I haven't been able to access gratitude -- and that feeling cut-off from gratitude can be especially painful on special days like holidays. If you are in that place, or if you think you know someone who might be, don't miss this post from Rabbi David Evan Markus at the Rabbis Without Borders blog at My Jewish Learning. He begins:

Happy Thanksgiving.

Now, let’s get real: some don’t feel thankful today. We might feel like the turkeys got us down. We might feel burdened by hosting, harried by travel, lonely for having nowhere to go, bothered for having to go somewhere we don’t want to go, or pre-triggered by a secular holiday season happier in advertising than anticipation or reality. It’s well to act grateful even if we don’t feel it (a practice worth trying), or imagine Plymouth Rock as the House of God (my post last Thanksgiving), but what if we (or people we love) don’t feel “thanks” on Thanksgiving?

Turns out, we have a turkey for that, too.

Rabbi David tells the parable of the Turkey Prince, which comes to us from Reb Nachman of Breslov, and offers some deep wisdom for those who are struggling today and those who love someone who is struggling today. Worth reading -- today and every day: It's Thanksgiving, But What If One Doesn't Feel Thankful?

In advance of Thanksgivukkah

Thanksgiving (and Chanukah) (and Thanksgivukkah) are almost upon us! In light of that, here's a revised version of the blessing before the Thanksgiving meal which I first posted last year.


A Prayer Before the Thanksgiving Meal

We thank You for this meal
and for all arrayed around this table;
for the earth from which this food emerged
and Your blessing which sustains that earth;
for the hands which planted and weeded and watered
and tended animals with loving care;
for the drivers who ferried ingredients to our stores
and the workers who stocked the shelves;
for the ones who cooked what we eat today
and those whom we remember as we dine.
Help us to receive this meal as a gift
and to offer gratitude in return.
May the abundance which we enjoy
spur us to care for those who need.
Blessed are You, Source of all being,
Whose abundance is manifest on this Thanksgiving day.


If you're looking for a prayer which is specific to this unique confluence of holidays, Rabbi Jason Miller has written a lovely Prayer for Thanksgivukkah. Edited to add: here are several prayers for Thanksgivukkah, written by a variety of different rabbis, at HuffingtonPost; I really like Rabbi Brad Hirschfield's.)

(And allow me to point to one more post about the confluence: Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan's Thanksgivukkah: The True History.)

And speaking of the confluence of holidays, much has been made of the notion that this won't happen again for thousands of years. But Rabbi David Seidenberg makes a compelling case for why Thanksgivukkah will happen again in 2070 -- and offers the beautiful suggestion that on this Thanksgivukkah, we bless our children or grandchildren who we hope will live to see that next Thanksgivukkah.

A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal

American Thanksgiving is almost upon us! The Thanksgiving category on this blog features a variety of Thanksgiving prayers and poems I've posted over the years, from the one by Reb Zalman (always a favorite of mine) to others by contemporary poets. Here's my own humble offering for this year, which you are welcome to use and/or to share if it moves you. Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate!

(For those who wish: here's a downloadable pdf containing Reb Zalman's prayer, my prayer, and sheet music for a one-line grace after meals, cross-posted to my congregational From the Rabbi blog: ThanksgivingTrio [pdf])

A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Source of all being, we thank You
for the meal on this table before us:

for the earth from which this food emerged
and Your blessing which sustains that earth

for the hands which planted and weeded and watered
and tended animals with loving care

for the drivers who ferried ingredients to our stores
and the workers who stocked the shelves

Continue reading "A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal" »

A Thanksgiving Prayer


Thank You, God of Eternity,
for the great wonder of Your creation,
for the earth, the stars, the sun and the moon,
and the beauty of Your universe,
with which in Your great kindness You have blessed me.
Thank You for granting me life, in all its richness,
for its brilliant moments of joy
which allow me to soar as the birds,
and even for its anguish and pain,
which somehow seem to precipitate inner growth and change.
For all these things, God, I am grateful.


But thank You, especially, God, in Your abundant love,
for having chosen to make me a human being,
blessed, among all the fruits of Your creation,
with a mind to reason and seek truth and justice;
with a soul which can feel pain, ecstasy, and compassion,
and has the freedom to choose life and goodness
over cruelty and destruction;
and with a heart which can love and care,
and reach out to touch the hearts of my brothers and sisters,
as together we walk through the years of our lives.

-- Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, from All Breathing Life (which I reviewed back in July)

Last year at this season I shared Reb Zalman's Thanksgiving prayer, a paragraph of text recounting one version of the American Pilgrim Thanksgiving story (written in the style of, and optionally to be included in, the amidah we say during daily prayers.) This year I'm sharing one of his prayers of thanksgiving which isn't specifically for, or about, Thanksgiving Day itself. This is, I think, meant to be a daily prayer... but surely today is a fine day on which to recite it.

May we all be aware, today and every day, of the many blessings for which we can and should give thanks.

May all be fed, may all be nourished, may all be loved. To all my readers in the US, and American readers abroad, I wish a happy American Thanksgiving! And to everyone else, a happy Thursday.

Two more poems for the week of Thanksgiving: Converse and Erdrich

Harriet Maxwell Converse was born in 1836. Her father and her grandfather were both traders who had been adopted into the Seneca Nation. Her bio page at PBS tells me that in later life she became a political advocate for the Six Nations, that the Seneca Nation eventually recognized her efforts by adopting her into the Snipe Clan, and that in September of 1891 Converse became the first white woman ever condoled as a Six Nations Chief. Below, I share one of her poems, a translation of a traditional Iroquois prayer of gratitude. Among the Six Nations, giving thanks was a daily practice, not a once-a-year occurrence. I try to make thanksgiving a daily practice, too, so her rendering of this prayer speaks to me.

I also want to honor a different take on Thanksgiving. Hence the second poem in this post. Heid E. Eridrich is an Ojibwe poet whose work I first encountered when my son was an infant. (I borrowed one of her lines as inspiration for one of my mother poems.) The poem of hers which I share below is full of righteous fury. It riffs off of Robert Frost's The Gift Outright, which I have long loved -- but now that Erdrich has shown me the manifest destiny at the core of Frost's poem, his poem becomes problematized. I still love it, but I see it through different eyes.

Just so, the story of Thanksgiving. There's something in the narrative of the grateful Puritans feasting with the Wampanoag which still appeals to me; I'm moved by the idea of people coming together across their differences to break bread together and to express thanks to something beyond themselves. I learned that story when I was a child, and it still speaks to me now. But as a grown-up I have to acknowledge that narrative's biases and erasures, even as I enjoy this national festival of food and gratitude. The story of the Puritans coming to these shores is also the story of the beginning of a vast and painful paradigm shift for this country's Native peoples. I don't want to forget that, this Thanksgiving.

Continue reading "Two more poems for the week of Thanksgiving: Converse and Erdrich" »

Prayers for Thanksgiving from Reb Zalman

Just in time for the holiday, my beloved Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi has revised his Thanksgiving prayer. First there's an English paragraph:

For all the boons in our lives we offer our thanks to you YHVH our God and in blessing your Name we hope that all of life will bless You too and especially today because:

In the days of the Pilgrims, the Puritans, when they arrived at these safe shores, suffered hunger and cold. They sang and prayed to the Rock of their Salvation. And You, standing by them, roused the caring of the Natives for them: who fed them, turkey and corn and other delights. Thus saved You them from starvation, and they learned the ways of peace with the inhabitants of the land. Therefore, feeling grateful, they dedicated a day of Thanksgiving each year as a remembrance for future generations, feeding unfortunates feasts of thanks. Thus do we thank You for all the good in our lives, God of kindness, Lord of Peace; thus do we thank You.

Then he offers the same text in Hebrew. Those who know the prayer Al haNisim ("For the Miracles") which is recited on Chanukah (and also on Purim) will realize, upon reading the Hebrew, that the structure of this Thanksgiving prayer is adapted from that one. (I'd enclose it here in Hebrew, but I don't seem to be able to convince any of the software on my machine to retain the directionality of the text -- if you want to read the Hebrew, you'll have to download Reb Zalman's pdf file!)

And then, for families who like to sing -- maybe especially families where someone at the table is Christian and is accustomed to singing hymns in the vernacular -- he offers the lyrics to "We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing." It's a beautiful hymn. A little bit of digging revealed that it was originally written in 1597 in Dutch; then translated into Latin; then translated into English! Anyway, it has a lovely melody; if you don't know it, here's a version sung by the Celtic Women, visible on YouTube over a medley of family and harvest images.

If you're so inclined, you can download Reb Zalman's prayers as a pdf -- an easy one page to print.

One way or another, I hope your Thanksgiving is sweet and full of gratitude!