On Thanksgiving: A Reflection On How We Got Here


Thanksgiving began with a journey. Actually, with many journeys. They started long before the Pilgrims, with the migrations of indigenous groups from Asia to Europe to America, and they continued over centuries with wave after wave of immigrants, refugees, slaves, wanderers and, yes, Dreamers, coming from all over, arriving on new shores. Without those journeys, there would have been no arrival in America and no celebration, no annual feast on the fourth Thursday of each November on which to give thanks.

Most of those journeys were not easy. Call it an understandable memory lapse that the unending list of traumas and travails of those journeys have been mostly forgotten over time and through the generations, not talked about as time went on. But it’s a major misremembering of history if we forget that whenever or from wherever we or our ancestors arrived, there was a journey, and it was most often a demanding one. Not only that. It took multitudes of these journeys, made in different eras, by different people. And it is the very fact of all those journeys that binds us and unites us, giving us a common story and common roots as Americans.

By contrast, when we focus solely on the arrival — the who, the when, the where and the from where — we’ve already begun dividing people into categories, and also dividing ourselves as a nation.

And so we ask: What would happen if we started a national conversation sharing our journey stories, understanding the commonalities between and among us?

Think about it: There’s a lot of talk about having a national conversation that could help heal our divisions as a nation. But the proposed topics are often too weighty or too abstruse or both. So here’s a conversation starter for this Thanksgiving dinner, or, for that matter, for any situation where you find yourself sitting or standing or working next to someone you might not know well or at all: We all had to get here somehow, we all have a journey story, so you tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.

What bearing, anyway, does vintage family lore have on the place at the American table we’ve already secured?

A lot. It teaches us about humility, resilience, tolerance, empathy — and, yes, the gratitude of Thanksgiving.

Asking the questions — and listening, really listening, to the answers — can help us re-enter and re-live the worries and anxieties of our own ancestor immigrants or slaves or refugees and thus of all who came here. Amazing, isn’t it, that most of us possess the same DNA as the grandparents or great-grandparents or even longer-ago progenitors who faced discrimination, marginalization, even deportation because they looked or spoke or prayed in ways that made those already here suspicious, uncomfortable, fearful?

Yes, and it’s the same DNA that provided them — and us — with the strength, determination and resilience to survive these experiences and prevail, that allowed us not only to survive but thrive here. How appropriate to be proud of and give thanks for those stories!

But as we listen to and learn from the tales of our journeys, there’s another stream among the oceans of stories that carried us all here that we should celebrate and express gratitude for: those already here who, if they didn’t outright welcome and help these newcomers, at the very least were willing to tolerate and live and work beside them and, sometimes, to open doors for them.

If the idea of helping the stranger sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a tradition that extends much farther back than America itself. The Bible reminds us that, “My father was a wandering Aramean” [Deuteronomy 26:5] — an alien, a stranger, a newcomer and an outsider in a promised land. That’s another way of saying we were all strangers in a strange land with many similarities to those making their own journeys today.

It’s a message that appears in one form or another 52 times throughout the Hebrew Bible, according to the distinguished biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman, in his book, “The Exodus.” Again and again, passages from Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy remind us — command us — to love the stranger, to remember that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt, and to let that memory guide us and lead us to not oppress, not persecute, not bend our judgment against strangers. The story of the Exodus — and all our stories — remind us that those aliens may not resemble “us” now, but we once resembled them. The Christian Bible echoes that very same idea in Matthew 25: 35, which reads, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And in the Koran we find, “Be kind to parents, and the near kinsman, and to orphans, and to the needy, and to the neighbor who is of kin, and to the neighbor who is a stranger, and to the companion at your side, and to the traveler” [Koran 4.36-37].

God bless America, the country where once all of us were newcomers and where today some are newly arrived. Let everyone sit around the table and tell the journey stories that made it possible for us to be here to give thanks. And let us continue to welcome more to join us with their stories, too. That is the Thanksgiving we all can share.

Diane Cole, a regular contributor, is author of the memoir, “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.” Dianejcole.com.

Ruth Messinger is former CEO of American Jewish World Service and former Manhattan borough president.