Giving thanks is a key Jewish value. Although Thanksgiving isn't a Jewish holiday, we can use it as a platform to tap into 4,000 years of Jewish wisdom and thanksgiving. Here’s how:
1) Learn your family history.
With several generations around the Thanksgiving table, including far-flung relatives we don't always get to see, Thanksgiving is a perfect chance to talk about family history. Consider preparing a list of questions for older relatives to answer. Ask them about family traditions, namesakes and memories. If you're ambitious, videotape the interviews.
2) Make a family manifesto.
Spend some time talking about your family’s future. Do you have long-term goals a family? What values do you hope to transmit to future generations? Does your family value helping others? Come up with your own goals – then brainstorm ways to make it happen in the coming year..
3) Focus on experiences, not possessions.
The Talmud defines happiness as “appreciating what you have.” Back in the 1950s, the average American home was 1,000 square feet, a little larger than a modern three-car garage. Researchers have found what many of us suspect: Money can't buy happiness. Richer countries are no happier than poorer ones, and national wealth is no predictor of contentment. Further, studies show that access to extreme luxury can actually undermine our happiness, as goods feel less special.
We gain more happiness and well-being from experiences than possessions. Getting out and doing things helps connect us with other people, and helps us feel more "alive." Start choosing more active ways of spending time – whether signing up for classes, getting involved in community events, learning more, or just reaching out to people. We all have room in our lives to do more.
4) Add Jewish spice.
Whether it's playing Jewish music during dinner, or showing the photos from your recent trip to Israel, consider adding some Jewish spice to your Thanksgiving gathering. America is a melting pot: Spend a few minutes talking about Jewish-American history, and the unique Jewish contributions.
With Thanksgiving always on Thursday, the next night is Shabbat. Take advantage of all that time spent in the kitchen and prepare a traditional Shabbat dinner for Friday night, too. Invite friends or family you might have missed on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a great 500-year-old American tradition, but Shabbat is still going strong after 5,000 years.
5) Make it holy.
Many Americans begin their Thanksgiving meal with a prayer. Judaism has its own way of blessing food. We stop and consider what we're about to enjoy, and remember it is a beautiful gift from God. Consider printing out copies of the Jewish prayers over food and distributing them at your Thanksgiving table.
Additionally, if you don't keep kosher, Thanksgiving – with its once-a-year menu and special aura – can be a great place to experiment with kosher ingredients. Besides, as many fine chefs know, the taste of kosher turkey is unsurpassed!
6) Host guests.
Entertaining is a key component of Thanksgiving. The Jewish view of offering food, drink and shelter is called Hachnasas Orchim in Hebrew. We're also expected to see our guests to the door, and even walk with them a few steps as they depart. This implies that the bond we've created is so strong, we're reluctant to see it end.
Research shows that spending money on others makes us happier than spending on ourselves, and even remembering a time when we acted generously makes us happier. This Thanksgiving, reach out to people who might not have a place to go. And create (or deepen) a connection that will last long after Thanksgiving is over.
7) Cultivate gratitude.
Modern researchers confirm that grateful people buy less, feel less envy, and are more generous to others. Our possessions are here to help us, rather than define us. To help internalize this truth, try limiting shopping as a pastime. Brainstorm for non-material "rewards" and mood-lifters to use when we're feeling down.
Consider starting a "gratitude journal": list ten things you're grateful for each day. People who do this are happier, healthier, and more appreciative of others. After all, isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about?