11/22/2011 10:57 am ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

The Pilgrim Family: A Jewish Perspective On Thanksgiving

With assistance from the phenomenal memory of a friend of mine from high school days, I can still recall the essay I wrote for 9th-grade English class about Thanksgiving. "Of Bands and Bullwinkle," I called it, the reference of course being to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and the balloon of my favorite cartoon character. The tone, my friend and I presume, was a combination of mild disapproval that a solemn occasion intended for the collective expression of gratitude to God had become a day devoted to parades, football and filling up on turkey--and real affection for the parades, the games, and especially the turkey. Parenthood and middle age have only increased my affection for all three. I liked Thanksgiving a lot when I wrote that piece, and still do.

The name of the holiday captures what means the most to me. Because of elementary school assemblies where we often sang in unison and were forced to memorize the lyrics, I can still recite all three stanzas of Adrianus Valerius's "We Gather Together" with ease. Dutch Reformed Theology is not otherwise my creed of choice, and I'm not sure that I'm entirely comfortable with the metaphors of battle that dominate the hymn. Indeed, my bond with Thanksgiving does not rely much on the story of the Pilgrim Fathers landing at Plymouth Rock, wanting for food, and getting help from friendly Native Americans. The story line seemed a bit thin even when I first encountered it -- witnessed a parody I wrote for a class play (and can still remember, of course) entitled "The Pilgrim Family," sung to the tune of The Adams Family theme song.

My attachment to Thanksgiving rests rather on gratitude, both for the blessings of God and for the many good things that generations of the Pilgrims' descendants have erected in this, their Promised Land. I'm thinking of New England towns graced by green commons and white steepled churches. Of the religious freedoms that the Pilgrims came to these shores to secure -- for a time denied to others -- and that came to distinguish America from most other nations. I'm thinking of the tradition of town hall meetings and vigorous democracy, and the commitments -- honored more in the breach than the observance these days -- that Americans would not let one another go hungry on Thanksgiving or any other day. This is certainly what Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt had in mind when they fixed the day on the American calendar and guaranteed it pride of place in the American conscience.

My sentiments regarding Thanksgiving are widely shared among Jews, who, according to one survey from the 1980s, celebrate Thanksgiving more than any other holiday, including Passover. The exception is Orthodox Jews, some of whom avoid marking the holiday because of well-founded suspicion that it retains significant Christian overtones or simply because, as a non-Jewish festival, it has the potential to encourage assimilation. A couple years ago, I found a friend sewing a Pilgrim costume for her daughter's role in a Thanksgiving pageant at her Jewish day school. Most Jews enjoy Thanksgiving all the more because it is not a Jewish holiday and yet -- in its themes and its observance -- is one they can observe as Americans with a full heart. It also has the advantage that, except for dietary laws, it is free of the restrictions that limit what one can do on Sabbaths and festivals of the Jewish calendar. In my house, we don't watch TV on the Sabbath, and therefore miss a lot of big games. On Thanksgiving, we miss out on nothing.

This is no small achievement: giving a religious minority a seat at the American table. The scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen imagines himself dressed as a Hasidic Jew as Grammy Hall's ham is placed ceremoniously on the Easter dinner table derives its humor from the fact that, typically, Jews (and other minorities) are not made to feel like outsiders. Thanksgiving is big on welcoming everyone in. Its welcome is especially appreciated, I think, because the presence of family and friends around a well-stocked table at home offers an intimacy of seeing and being seen on the "inside" that is missing, say, from July 4 fireworks.

All of which leads me to be grateful for the holiday -- and to suggest that our prayers this Thanksgiving should perhaps include a plea, addressed to the retailers of America, not to move the start of the Christmas shopping season up from early Friday morning to Thursday midnight or even before. Leave Thanksgiving alone, please. We all need a chance to savor the food at leisure, cuddle with the kids, make conversation with the in-laws, throw around the football, and generally breathe in deeply the sensation of true gratitude.

If memory serves, the banter between Rocky and Bullwinkle before commercial breaks went like this:

"The spirits are about to speak."
"Are they friendly spirits?"
"Just listen."

The spirit of this holiday is one of the friendliest that I could imagine -- and one of the most profound.