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Jerusalem Notebook: Thanksgiving and the Giving of Thanks in Jerusalem

By Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Nearly a decade ago, my first Thanksgiving in Israel was a strange and a most unholiday-ish experience. After a lifetime of festive dinners with family and friends, I found myself in Jerusalem’s Old City, speaking to a small gathering of maybe 20 people about a rather grim subject: the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries. There weren’t any Americans in the crowd, which was made up mostly of German Christians.

After the fact, it occurred to me that not one of us had even thought to give thanks for our own safety and for the freedom to discuss the matter without fear.

As I walked home, I passed a brightly lit restaurant (which no longer exists) on Emek Refaim. It was noisy and packed with people. And I immediately noticed that the waiters and waitresses were wearing rather odd-looking costumes, apparently meant to represent Pilgrims and Indians (this was my conclusion after studying an array of Pocahontas-inspired paper headbands with a single feather thrust into the back).

It occurred to me that I hadn’t yet eaten, and that the eatery was sure to be serving turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie. But for some reason, I wasn’t in the mood. Instead, I made my way home and ate some leftover ravioli.

That rather solitary evening got me thinking about the holiday itself and its seeming disappearance from Jerusalem.

I asked my neighbor, Joe Straus, why Jerusalem’s Jews don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. “We do!” he said, with a smile. “Every Shabbat is a day of thanksgiving.”

Fair enough. For sure, there is a lot to be thankful for at Shabbat dinners – that is indisputable.

In any case, I later learned, as you’ll see below, that I was wrong about the lack of Thanksgiving dinners in Israel. I just hadn’t been in the right place at the right time.

Meanwhile, Joe’s remark stirred my curiosity. It didn’t take me long to realize that gratitude lies at the heart of nearly every Jewish prayer. Last week, I finally asked a rabbi about both Thanksgiving and the giving of thanks.

David Sterne describes himself as a Chasidic rabbi “living and enlivening in Jerusalem’s Old City.” I met him a few years ago and knew that he would have some insights into Thanksgiving in Judaism.

“As an American Jew,” he told me, “I have fond memories of Thanksgiving meals with the family, enjoying some turkey with all the trappings, cranberry sauce and especially pumpkin pie for dessert.

“Here in Israel, those memories serve me well, as I create a Thanksgiving Shabbat for friends and new immigrants, inviting guests over to enjoy the same cuisine (I make the pumpkin pie myself). Frequently, I am asked what this secular American holiday has to do with Judaism. Well, it has nothing to do with Judaism, and yet it has everything to do with Judaism.”

Of course I had to ask, “What do you mean it has both nothing and everything to do with Judaism?”

“Nothing” – because Thanksgiving was conceived and established by Christians who found themselves in a new and strange land (the east coast of what was later to become the U.S.) – with no association with either Jews or Judaism.

And yet “everything,” because those same Christians were devout pilgrims who had endured a difficult year and wanted to thank the One above for getting through that year (with a “little help” from some native American friends). And there is nothing more Jewish than giving thanks and acknowledging God.

These days, most Christians are not only aware of, but also intrigued by, the Hebraic roots of our faith. Meanwhile, we have been taught – for as long as most of us can remember – to give thanks for all things, even the things that seem less than welcome.

Still, I was particularly surprised by an English version of the Kaddish – the Jewish mourners’ prayer – which is not a lament at all (as I expected), but rather an offering of praise to God, even in the midst of great sorrow:

Exalted and hallowed be His great Name.
Throughout the world which He has created according to His Will.
May He establish His kingship, bring forth His redemption and hasten the coming of His Moshiach (Messiah).
In your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon, and say, Amen.
May His great Name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified, exalted and extolled, honored, adored and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He.
Beyond all the blessings, hymns, praises and consolations that are uttered in the world, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and a good life for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He Who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

Rabbi Sterne provided me with some further insight into the praise and worship that is so prevalent in Jewish prayer. “In fact, he told me, “the Hebrew word for ‘Jew’ – Yehudi – means ‘one who acknowledges.’ The etymological root of the word – hoda’ah – means ‘admission; acknowledgment.’”

He went on to explain,

There is nothing more basic, and yet profound, as acknowledging the One above, fully, face-to-face with the admission that we are “nothing,” no more than a speck in the cosmos. Yet we are “everything” for the precise reason that He smacked us right down here in the middle of this incredible universe – undoubtedly for the purpose of doing something unique.

Some of us manage to discover what that purpose is. Others don’t. But we can all give thanks to Him for putting us here, and acknowledge that we have a task.

The first thing that a Jew does in the morning, even before getting out of bed, is say, “Modeh ani lefanecha” – “I acknowledge your presence.” He then begins his prayers in the morning with the words “Hodu Lashem” – “Give thanks and acknowledge the Lord.” And finally the very pinnacle of prayers occurs when we say “Modim anachanu lach” – “We thank/acknowledge You.”

There are different levels and nuances of this gratitude and acknowledgment, but that is what Jews are all about: hoda’ah, Thanks-giving.

In fact, even the Hebrew word for turkey is hodu!

This year, once again, I’ll be in Jerusalem while my family abroad feasts on turkey, dressing, potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and all the other trimmings – delicacies that reappear without fail on groaning tables all across the United States.

And in spirit, I’ll be right there with them. But I’ll also join my Jewish friends and neighbors here in Jerusalem, giving thanks, lifting a glass and being grateful for all the blessings we receive during our lifetime on earth.

As the Israeli toast says, “L’Chaim!” – “To life!”

Thank God for the gift of life He’s given to each of us.

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