Thanksgiving brings to mind pleasant images of roasting turkey, pumpkin pie and family gatherings. Perfectly compatible with Jewish observance, the holiday is a traditional favorite of Jewish families.
It always falls on a Thursday, never on Shabbat. The classic main dish is a turkey, available in kosher form. And gratitude for one's blessings is a religious impulse that all Americans can share.
Moreover, popular historical interpretation holds that the pilgrims modeled Thanksgiving after the biblical harvest festival of Sukkot. Whether or not this is accurate — a historian friend of mind considers it an American midrash or creative interpretation — it creates a comfortable association between Thanksgiving and our Jewish heritage.
In that vein, here are a few ideas to make Thanksgiving even more special for your family:
*Do mitzvot, or good deeds.
The classic Jewish way of enjoying our blessings is to share them with others. You could give tzedakah by donating money for charity or food to organizations that fight hunger. You could take a more hands-on approach and volunteer at a community Thanksgiving dinner for the needy or deliver meals to shut-ins.
Treat your Thanksgiving feast as a true se'udah, or festive meal, celebrated on a spiritual occasion and marked by blessings and words of Torah. Brachot, or blessings, are a Jewish practice to acknowledge our gratitude toward God and "make our table an altar."
Jewish educator Joel Lurie Grishaver suggests that we say kiddush or the longer version of blessings over the wine at our Thanksgiving feast. While I associate kiddush with the specific sanctification of the Sabbath and Jewish holy days, I would like to adapt his suggestion by encouraging families to say the Hebrew blessings for wine and bread before the festive meal.
You could go further and adapt a Chassidic Passover custom by asking everyone present to add a drop of his or her own wine to the main goblet before saying the blessing. As you do so, tell one thing that you are thankful for this year
*Say Birkat HaMazon.
Through the prayer of grace after meals, we can thank God for our many blessings of food and nourishment. Both the traditional and shorter more contemporary versions of the Birkat HaMazon are found in many prayerbooks.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has written a special Thanksgiving prayer that can supplement the Birkat HaMazon.
The English reads: "In the days of the Pilgrims, the Puritans, when they arrived at these safe shores, suffered hunger and cold. They sang and prayed to the Rock of their Salvation. And You, standing by them, roused the caring of the Natives for them: who fed them, turkey and corn and other delights.
"Thus saved You them from starvation, and they learned the ways of peace with the inhabitants of the land. Therefore, feeling grateful, they dedicated a day of Thanksgiving each year as a remembrance for future generations, feeding unfortunates feasts of thanks. Thus do we thank You for all the good in our lives, God of kindness, Lord of Peace; thus do we thank You."
*Create a Thanksgiving "seder" or meal.
Take a cue from the Passover seder to make the Thanksgiving feast more meaningful. In addition to the blessings and customs mentioned above, you could create a Thanksgiving seder plate and place objects on it that signify the blessings of our nation and/or things for which you are personally thankful.
Besides displaying and explaining these objects at the meal, you could also read or tell stories of the first Thanksgiving, followed by a retelling of your family's own saga of finding freedom in America. This could be oral.
The more ambitious might choose to create a hand crafted memory book that is brought out each year. Round the meal out by singing Hebrew songs of thanks as well as American folk songs. This type of seder is especially meaningful if shared among families of different religions and background.
*"Let all who are hungry come and eat."
Take a leaf from the Passover Haggadah by inviting someone far from home to Thanksgiving dinner. Check with your Jewish community center or synagogue for ideas. Invite people outside your usual social circle to the Thanksgiving feast. If they are new Americans, they may have much to share about the blessings of this country that we often take for granted.