THE BLOG
11/22/2013 08:30 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Giving in to Thanksgivukkah

Skeptic that I am, when I first heard that Hanukkah would begin this year on Thanksgiving, I never thought it would interest anyone except calendar freaks. Lunar and solar cycles, each having its own permutations, and Thanksgiving being calculated not by Gregorian date but as a Fourth Thursday?

But Thanksgivukkah grew on me. I was reminded by an acquaintance, who is helping organize a Los Angeles community festival for Thanksgivukkah on Black Friday (honest), that both holidays came out of a response to religious persecution. My mind began to spin. Maybe, after all, there was a deep inner connection. Certainly, Hanukkah never belonged with Christmas. Perhaps the Messiah has been waiting for just this astrological conjunction.

So I decided to take it seriously for a moment, and I thought about the stories. The first one comes from the second century BCE: A people conquered by an imperial power were governed by a puppet priesthood. When they tried to regain control of their most holy site, the Temple in Jerusalem, the foreign ruler massacred protesters, desecrated the temple with forbidden offerings, and outlawed their most distinctive rites. A band of priests raised a guerilla army and, against all odds, restored the Temple and then won battle after battle over the imperial forces. For several generations, the people had a nation independent of foreign rule.

The story doesn't end there. About three centuries after the initial events, the nation had degenerated into civil strife, lost two disastrous wars with another imperial army, that of Rome, and saw their great hopes disintegrate before their eyes. In the aftermath of that terrible violence, the Jewish sages took on the task of rebuilding the nation from within. They reinforced the original Hanukkah holiday by adding a supplement to the Thanksgiving (yes!) section of the daily communal prayers to commemorate the religious spirit of the original rebels, emphasizing G-d's role in the events that enabled the victory of the "few over the many, the weak over the strong, the pure over the impure." Political independence, they were saying, was not as important as the inner strength to resist persecution.

Fast forward 14 centuries for the second story. A religious group that diverged from the beliefs and practices of the established church of their land was persecuted in a variety of ways -- imprisonment, confiscation of property, physical punishment, and even branding. Over a few decades, about 80,000 emigrated across the Atlantic. The most famous group of settlers established a small community in Massachusetts which, against severe odds, survived, with the help of the native peoples of the new country. In remembrance, they established a day for giving thanks. Their example inspired many generations with the religious attitude of affirming dependence on G-d and, at the same time, a spirit of independence that would help shape a new nation on this side of the Atlantic.

This story also has a coda. More than two centuries after the initial events, the nation found itself embroiled in civil war. The president (then recognized by only half the country), turned to the local traditions around the old holiday, and established it permanently in the nation's memory -- Thanksgiving Day on the 4th Thursday in November. In his proclamation he urged the nation to give thanks for its heritage and for G-d's grace; for in spite of the destruction of war, the fields had bloomed and the harvest was abundant, commerce and manufacture had continued. With faith based in gratitude, the people could persevere as did their ancestors.

A few similarities. Uncanny? Or, perhaps, both holidays are pointing to deeper and more universal truths.

Religious persecution. Yes: both holidays recall the ways in which powerful forces often try to eliminate threatening beliefs and practices, knowing that religion can inspire people to dare things they otherwise would not. Thanksgiving and Hanukkah both pose fundamental questions about what makes life worthwhile: What is so precious that we would uproot our lives entirely, face great danger, or even die, rather than follow the dictates of an alien power? When does conformity become not merely annoying but a violation of our inherent dignity?

Civil war. Both holidays were firmly established, not by the original event, but later, at a time of devastation and near-desperation, when the inner fabric of the people had been torn apart. They found inspiration by recalling those who had faced adversity before, and with G-d's help had overcome it. Do we have those anchors in our lives? Knowing the family stories, and the larger stories of nation and people, with their struggles and hard times as well as their victories, helps people be more resilient and act with healthy confidence in times of trouble.

Gratitude to a life-giving, life-sustaining benevolence. "With G-d's help" was essential to the original experience, and infuses both holidays today -- although, being a bit embarrassed to be loudly grateful, we express it implicitly in our joy and celebration more than explicitly in words.

Indeed, joyful gratitude through feasting is what the "first Thanksgiving" was about.The Pilgrims understood -- from the Hebrew Bible which was their guide -- that thanks and feasts go together. Specifically, their model was the biblical Sukkot holiday of ingathering, the fall harvest. Hanukkah was also modeled on Sukkot, another eight-day holiday. In the 2nd century BCE, the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple by the foreign rulers had prevented the Sukkot offerings from being brought, so when the Temple was re-taken and purified, eight days of offerings were brought, two months late.

Thanksgivukkah isn't so silly, after all. The strange calendrical conjunction may be more than an accident notable mainly to Americans who love pluralism, and Jews who love America.

Its religious base can remind us of the deep, sometimes unacknowledged calling toward our true nature, rather than the opinions and forces of the prevailing culture. "The few over the many."

Its theme of perseverance can inspire us even in times of collective desperation. We are told that we live within a clash of civilizations, and a hopelessly divided body politic. But, as Lincoln urged, we can shift our perspective and appreciate a reality where blessings come to us daily, and where people continue to put forth their best effort to create a satisfying life for all.

And, from Thanksgivukkah, we can redouble our intent to experience life with joyful gratitude. Gratitude is the heart of prayer, the heart of faith, and the heart of gracious relations with all those among whom we live.

So enjoy your turkey with sweet potato latkes and cranberry sauce, finish the feast with pumpkin-filled sufganiyot (the donuts commonly eaten during Hanukkah). Be openly grateful. And as for Black Friday -- well, join me. Instead of heading for Macy's, I expect to show up at the Pico-Union project for L.A.'s community festival. With my astrology charts.