While most people think of “T-Bird Day” as pure Americana, naturally, we Jews are in there, somewhere, planting roots. “This holiday -- all red, white and bluish -- is also a little Jewish.”
Don’t believe me? Well, the first acknowledged Thanksgiving was in 1621 (some sources cite 1623) when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast. Some Jewish historians claim it was originally thought of as a day of fasting, introspection, and prayer, parallel to our Yom Kippur.
Actually, the first American Thanksgiving was copied directly from the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Both holidays are a festival of thanksgiving to G-d, the giver of the fall harvest. However, as the seasons differ between Israel and New England, Sukkot precedes Thanksgiving by a couple months.
Lost Tribes & Festivals?
The Japanese perform the honored Gion festivals on July 17. This has always been performed on the 17th day of the seventh month, mysteriously matching the day when Noah's ark drifted ashore on the mountains of Ararat. The Bible records, "The ark rested in the seventh month, the 17th day of the month, on the mountains of Ararat" (Genesis 8:4).
How does this relate to Thanksgiving? Though there is no biblical record, maybe the ancients had a thanksgiving feast on this day each year. But since the time of Moses, it was replaced by Sukkot. Israelites knew well of the day when Noah's ark rested. Could it be that a lost biblical-era festival is still surviving in Japan?
Gobble, Gobble, Gevalt!
If you’re a purist, quick! Stop the stuffing, the trussing, and the “turkey” trottin’! Ya’ got the wrong “boid.” No. Actually, right bird, wrong name. How? The first European to set foot on American soil, the concerto Luis de Torres, who sailed with Columbus in 1492, wrote a letter home describing the exotic animal life in the New World, among them “a peacock.” He wrote in Hebrew, and the word for “peacock” is “tukki” -- transformed by Europeans into “turkey.” Therefore, every Thanksgiving Americans are feasting on a misnamed fowl!
A Thanksgiving Mitzvah
On Thanksgiving 1853, the cornerstone was laid for the first Jewish U.S. hospital in New York City. Completed on June 8, 1855, the name, proudly proclaimed over its doors, was Jews’ Hospital (in Hebrew, Beit Cholim). Originally it tended only to Jews, accepting others in emergencies. This changed as a result of the Civil War, Draft Day and Orange Day Parade riots. By 1886, to clarify it served all in the community, the hospital was officially renamed and now is one of the most prestigious hospitals and learning institutions in the world covering some 20 city blocks. It’s new name? Mount Sinai Hospital!
The Great Debate
Since 1947, every year before Thanksgiving, students and faculty at the University of Chicago listen to scholars, mathematicians, university presidents, and even Nobel Prize laureates debate the same critical question: Which is better -- the latke or the hamantashan? The great debate has forced scholars to examine, for example, the cosmic and mathematical significance of the shapes and qualities of both delish dishes. Hegel, Freud, Marx and somehow even Plato all get rolled into the fray. All of which proves that We Jews love argumentation almost as much as eating, and when we can combine them? Ai Ai Ai -- a joy!
And We Shall Shop in This New Land
For most Americans, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade kicks off the holiday shopping season. Of course, this legendary parade is hosted by a Jewish department store! (Macy’s was founded by the Strauses.) By the end of World War II, department stores owned by Jewish families sprawled from sea to shining sea. Macy’s competitor, Gimbels, was also a Jewish establishment. Here are a few more that have ho ho ho-ed, as they’ve serviced both Gentile and Jew.
• Bergdorf Goodman
• Neiman Marcus
• Lord & Taylor
• I. Magnin
• Sears, Roebuck & Co.
• And of course ... Loehmann’s!