What Israelis can learn from American Thanksgiving

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-23-11

Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving – a great American invention. As Americans from coast to coast sit down and dig in, eating their turkey and stuffing, their cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, Israelis should contemplate the holiday’s broadmindedness. This is the all-American day, when blacks and whites, Jews and non-Jews, immigrants and natives, act in concert, bonding as one nation.
Thanksgiving’s magic lies in each individual’s memory, ritual, experiences. For me, Thanksgiving is about schlepping into a cold, windy Manhattan with my parents to see Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade – shivering from the cold and with delight, while watching supersized-balloons of Superman and Underdog, Popeye and Bullwinkle J. Moose waft down Broadway.  It’s about defrosting in the apartment of my Aunt Jennie and Uncle Lenny, clambering around with my brothers as the grownups crowd around a table extending the length of their Bronx apartment, from their dining room into their living room. It’s about braving the Wednesday before Thanksgiving as a college student, sitting on the highway from Boston to New York, now blocked by one massive traffic jam as millions rush to make it for the command performance which is the Thanksgiving meal. It’s about the sweet smell of American success as we gather around successively larger dining room tables in my uncle’s successively more magnificent houses, sharing our accomplishments, thrilled that America is so welcoming to us Jews.
My Thanksgiving is about mounds of my Aunt Lenore’s chestnut stuffing vacuumed off the plate, cases of my Uncle Irv’s Beaujolais Nouveau drained dry. It’s about the sticky sweetness of the melted marshmallows atop my mother’s sweet potato casserole, the alluring smell of the turkey as my father carved it so expertly. And it’s about my late grandparents’ desperate delight in seeing their children and grandchildren gather year after year, pleased we were all “tugetha” – Newyawk speak for together – but fearing that once they died these reunions would stop – which they did.
If the charm lies in these intimacies, the grandeur comes from the simultaneity. We were all doing it at once as Americans.  Our turkeys might be kosher, and our tables might lack a big ham, but despite our ethnic idiosyncrasies, our religious peculiarities, we never felt so American as when we gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing in synch with our neighbors on Thanksgiving Day.
Christmas is too Christian.  July Fourth substitutes finger-menacing fireworks for the finger-lickin’ turkeys. Thanksgiving has a purity, a universality, a magnanimity, a ubiquity epitomizing America at its best. The overflowing Thanksgiving cornucopia embodies America’s abundant blessings of openness, acceptance, fluidity, civility, and stability in the world’s shining example of a society delivering liberty and prosperity. Other countries have festivals to give thanks, but American Thanksgiving stands out in its ecumenicism, its welcoming embrace, whether or not you begin it by saying grace.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s idea when he signed the first proclamation creating a uniform Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November, 1863. The United States was fighting a bloody Civil War. Different states had celebrated at different times for decades. Lincoln wanted to devote one day to toasting the good despite all the bad, celebrated “as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.”
Thanksgiving’s charms evoke the many, magical communal moments punctuating Israel’s calendar. There is a national magic and grandeur to Rosh Hashanah’s mass joy and massive heartburn, Yom Kippur’s stillness and piousness, Chanukkah’s lights and lightheartedness, Purim’s costumes and chaos, Passover’s cleaning and cuisine, Yom HaShoah’s sorrow and solemnity, Yom HaZikaron’s sadness and supportiveness, Yom Ha’atzmaut’s bliss and barbecues. But none of these fabulous festivals which enrich Israeli life involve all Israelis. Twenty percent of the population, the Arab twenty percent, takes the days off but few Israeli-Arabs partake in these national celebrations.
The absence of 20 percent of the population does not invalidate these national festivals. The majority culture in a democracy can mount mass celebrations enacting majority rituals and expressing majority ideals. But it would be great if the Arab sector embraced Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, or another holy day, perhaps making the Yitzhak Rabin’s memorial day a day for uniting all Israelis.
American Thanksgiving should inspire Israelis to nurture more national rallying points, more communal bonding moments that remind Israel’s Arabs and Jews of their common values and intertwined fates as Israeli citizens. All Israelis should have a broader appreciation of Israeli Arab celebrities such as the singer Mira ‘Awad, the soccer star Walid Badir whose 83rd-minute goal let Israel tie France in 2006, Salim Joubran the Supreme Court justice who judged Moshe Katzav, the comedian and writer Sayed Kashua of the sitcom “Avoda Aravit,” the former general Yusef Mishlab, the Hebrew poet and successful diplomat, Reda Mansour. The educational ministry should focus more on what Americans call “civics,” creating a common language and common values to unite the four school systems – an absurd number for a small country – so that young Arabs, religious Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and secular Jews can share more not less.  Arabs should volunteer for national service to demonstrate their participation in the social compact. And politicians should devote more resources to eliminating discrimination, nurturing civility, facilitating unity, and cultivating a common discourse.
This kind of bonding, this search for new social glues that transcend the familiar divides, will not be easy. Communal moments and touchstones are not easily mass produced or conjured. But history teaches that change sometimes occurs for the better. When Abraham Lincoln started the first national Thanksgiving, Americans were slaughtering one another en masse. But he believed in his nation. This notion of seeking one covenant of, by and for the people should inspire and bond modern Israelis, uniting Arabs and Jews.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book, is “The History of American Presidential Elections.”

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