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Rabbi Daniel Brenner Headshot

Why I Will Not Be Celebrating 'Thanksgivukkah'

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In 1970, when one of the descendants of the Wampanoag tribe was asked to speak at Plymouth Rock, he said to the assembled crowd:

Today is a time of celebrating for you -- a time of looking back to the first days of white people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my people.

Although I must admit that second graders in 17th century costumes are certainly worthy of a Buzzfeed photo series, anyone who has studied the history of Thanksgiving knows that it is far from a cute holiday. Take a look at these words excerpted from President Lincoln's proclamation of the national holiday in 1863:

While offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him... with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers...

Thanksgiving was born from a "national perverseness and disobedience" that took place during the bloody Civil War that turned Americans against one another. Afterwards, those who sought to popularize the holiday drew on symbols of another era of perverseness -- the cruel conquest of the new world that took place during the pre-colonial era. As a national holiday, Thanksgiving asks us to ritualize the mythic unity of Indian and White man, Confederate and Union soldier. In the rituals of the fall harvest, we all become "Americans" overcoming the divisions that separate us by uniting through connection to the land itself. Partaking in a shared harvest, we overcome ethnic and political division. It is a powerful and much needed message in a nation that is still, in many ways, divided.

Hanukkah is the opposite -- it does not mark unity of disparate parties but celebrates the fiercely independent Hasmoneans who sought control of their land in the shadow of a foreign oppressor. Hanukkah's message is not unity, peace, cooperation or diplomacy -- but defiance, independence, and the spiritual renewal that comes with reasserting political control of a sacred land. The Maccabees were not known for their tolerance, but they were praised for their conviction to fight against a larger armed force. If Hanukkah were to be paired with an American holiday, it would be a much better fit with the 4th of July.

And that is why the mash-up of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is so disconcerting. Turkey themed menorahs and pumpkin kugels are all wonderful -- but diluting both festivals and forcing a shared message of "gratitude" or "spirit" is irresponsible. Thankfully, alternative voices are being heard, and the folks over at Heeb Magazine lauded the Anti-Thanksgivukah song on their website. May this be one of many efforts to help convince the public that both holidays have distinct histories, and that American Jews -- and those who celebrate with them -- should value both Thanksgiving day and Hanukkah night.