Thanksgiving And Chanukah: Two Distinct Holidays


As someone who loves to eat and is proud to be an American, I would never be the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving. But I confess. I have not been swept up in the whirlwind excitement over Thanksgivukkah. The last time Chanukah occurred around this season was 1861, but President Lincoln only declared Thanksgiving an official holiday in 1863.

I saw the Jon Stewart segment and laughed about the menurkey (the menorah in the shape of a turkey) but I, for one, will not be stuffing my bird with latkes this year. These two dates may coincide on the calendar, but their meaning for us should not blend into a mush that gets in the way of appreciating each on its own, distinct terms.

Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate the American freedom to express religious and political beliefs while respecting and making peace with others who choose to express their beliefs and ethnicity differently. Chanukah is about fighting for freedom against enemies who want to dominate you physically and spiritually, who could not tolerate difference and violently wanted to obliterate it.

As the book of Ecclesiastes says, and the Byrds sang, there is a time for everything. There is a time for peacemaking and a time for fighting. There is a time for adaptation and a time for standing on principle, even when that stance is contrarian, counter-cultural and sets you apart from others within your society.

Making the determination as to which time it is may be the hardest part of this equation. The Pew study told us, not surprisingly, that we as a people and as individuals are doing well in America. We are not merely tolerated here but accepted fully and integrated into society at large. We are valued as Americans who have made significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge and values. We have achieved great things in education. We are both affluent and influential, as in no other time in Jewish history. Our Jewishness is not something we hide or cover in America as we once did. We feel comfortable wearing our ethnic pride and have plenty to be proud of today.

But this integration comes at a price, and we would be naïve to deny or turn away from other Pew findings about alarming levels of Jewish assimilation into the environment, culture and ethos of this great country we helped create. Where we once fought hard to be American, today we have to fight to be more Jewish because this identity, as a robust and meaningful aspect of self and community, is fading quickly. The difference is that only decades ago we wanted badly to be Americans. Today we are not always willing to fight for our Jewish identity, to work hard at it, to put an effort into Jewish meaning and engagement.

Assimilation has a price tag that lies at the very hard of what the Maccabees fought so hard to achieve in the ancient world: the capacity and blessing to remain distinct as a Jewish civilization and people.

As we give thanks for the blessings we have on Thanksgiving night, let us not forget to remain resolute in fighting for the heritage we have been given. The next time Chanukah coincides with Thanksgiving will be in 2146. By then, kids may have the whole week off of school, and Black Friday will start on the Wednesday before the holiday. There will be football games on 100 cable stations and maybe instead of volunteering at a soup kitchen, we will have ended world hunger.

I will not be here then to dust off my menurkey and light it, but I hope that those who do will feel as much joy in front of the Chanukah candles as they do in front of the dinner table and give thanks for the remarkable transformation we initiated to strengthen Jewish identity from our last Thanksgivukkah.

Misha Galperin is president and CEO of the Jewish Agency for Israel, North America.