Did you know that Thanksgiving is really a Jewish holiday?
Although Thanksgiving is not on the Jewish calendar, historians believe that Sukkot may have inspired America’s favorite farewell to fall, often nicknamed “Turkey Day.”
“The pilgrims based their customs on the Bible,” says Gloria Kaufer Greene, a food and holiday expert. “They knew that Sukkot was an autumn harvest festival, and there is evidence that they fashioned the first Thanksgiving after the Jewish custom of celebrating the success of the year’s crops.”
Linda Burghardt, author of “Jewish Holiday Traditions,” says, “Sukkot is considered a model for Thanksgiving. Both holidays revolve around showing gratitude for a bountiful harvest.”
Today Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, but President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t propose this timing until 1939.
It was Abraham Lincoln who made Thanksgiving a national holiday. Roosevelt actually changed Lincoln’s decree that Thanksgiving be observed on the last Thursday in November, which may fall on the fifth Thursday of the month.
The pilgrims invited local Native American tribes to the first Thanksgiving during the fall of 1621. Historians speculate that this celebration occurred somewhere between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, but most likely in early October, around the time of Sukkot.
“Originally, Sukkot entailed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem,” says Greene, who believes the two holidays share much in common.
The Puritans who landed on American shores seeking religious freedom were called pilgrims, in deference to their journey from England. Their dream of finding a place where they’d be free to worship as they pleased is a recurrent theme in Jewish history.
After their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the ancient Israelites lived for a week in temporary huts while giving thanks for a plentiful harvest. Likewise, during their first winter in Massachusetts, the pilgrims dwelled in makeshift huts, wigwams that the Indians helped them build.
While Sukkot remains a seven-day observance, the first Thanksgiving celebration continued for three days, a time frame more similar to the Jewish harvest festival than today’s Thanksgiving dinner, which often begins in late afternoon and ends several hours later.
With its pumpkin pies and cranberry garlands, Thanksgiving mirrors many of Sukkot’s customs and culinary themes.
Burghardt says she is amazed at how many of the same foods are connected to both holidays.
Piping hot casseroles brimming with vegetables and fruit grace the American and Jewish harvest tables, as do pastries that are filled with apples, nuts, pumpkins and squash. Stuffing one food inside another as a metaphor for abundance is the hallmark of Sukkot cuisine.
Greene enjoys transforming traditional Thanksgiving recipes into kosher cuisine.
“I like mixing new and old world themes,” she says.
One of her favorite recipes is glazed turkey with fruit-nut stuffing. Bursting with so much produce, it’s a one-dish harvest festival. Because the pilgrims and Indians shared roasted corn during the first Thanksgiving, Greene’s double-corn bread is a fitting choice. It is soft and moist, almost like a kugel.
Harvest-time cranberry relish is always a big hit at Greene’s house.
“Several years ago, I invited a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants to celebrate their first Thanksgiving. While they adored traditional American foods, they were especially fascinated with the taste and bright color of cranberries,” she says.
But since the two holidays are so close in time, is there any reason for American Jews who celebrate Sukkot to pay homage to a second harvest festival six weeks later?
“Participating in Thanksgiving is how we feel American,” says Greene, a former food columnist for the Baltimore Jewish Times, who used to submit a Thanksgiving story every year.
She agrees with Burghardt that Thanksgiving is a lovely experience. It’s an easy holiday to include friends and neighbors of other faiths.
“While Thanksgiving is not technically a Jewish holiday, it’s not a Christian one either,” says Burghardt. “It’s a great equalizer with a multicultural theme.”
Although Burghardt believes that Thanksgiving with its chocolate turkeys and pilgrims lacks Sukkot’s depth, Greene feels there’s something spiritual about the whole country partaking in a communal meal, even though menus and customs vary from home to home. At her table, she asks guest to share one thing for which they’re grateful.
“Like Sukkot, at Thanksgiving you’re supposed to invite people to share abundance with your family,” says Burghardt. “You can’t serve too much food. Could there be anything more Jewish than that?”
Linda Morel writes about food for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.