Thanksgiving Through a Jewish Lens
By Rabbi Pam Frydman
Congregation P’nai Tikvah, Brunch with Brilliants Talk, November 20, 2016
As we well know, Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Families and friends get together to enjoy a delicious meal, visit with one another and perhaps watch football. Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday and it is not a holiday connected with any one religion. Rather, it is an American holiday with a religious and spiritual feeling into which each family, and each group of friends, may bring their own rituals and special foods.
On Thanksgiving, some religious congregations serve a meal for the poor in their neighborhood, and of course, homeless shelters do the same. So it is fair to say that the American observance of Thanksgiving revolves around having a meal and sharing our meal with others.
Separate from the American tradition of a Thanksgiving meal, there also appears to be a connection between the Jewish festival of Sukkot and the early Thanksgivings celebrated by the Puritans in the New World. I want to begin by telling the story of the Puritans, how they came to settle in the New World, and how they hosted a group of Native Americans for the first Thanksgiving celebration in the year 1621. I also want to talk about the Puritan celebration of Thanksgiving two years later, in 1623, when it had become more of a religious celebration.
The Puritans were Protestants and their homeland was in England. The Puritans felt that the Anglican Church of England was not sufficiently Protestant and was too close to Catholicism. So the Puritans raised their voices and complained and protested against a variety of practices of the Anglican Church. During the late 1500s and early 1600s, the English government and the English people began to be marginalize and persecute the Puritans because of their protests against the Church. Later, in 1630, King Charles of England appointed Bishop William Laud to serve as the Archbishop of Canterbury. One of the reasons that King Charles chose Laud was because Laud disliked the Puritans.
As time went on, Archbishop Laud increased the church sanctioned persecution of Puritans and other religious dissidents. The persecution under Archbishop Laud became so horrific that eventually the Archbishop was arrested, tried and sentenced to death by the English House of Commons.
In 1608, twenty-two years before William Laud became the Archbishop of Canterbury, there was already significant persecution against the Puritans, and some Puritans began to flee. A group of Puritans from the village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, England moved to the town of Leyden in the Netherlands, and it was there in Leyden that the Puritans lived among Sephardi Jews. According to my research, the Puritans witnessed the celebration of the Jewish festival of Sukkot and they also learned about Sukkot from reading about it in the Bible. As we know, Jewish festivals are generally celebrated in the home or in the synagogue, but the festival of Sukkot is celebrated out of doors. Whether in the 17th century or the 21st century, Jews might build a sukkah in the backyard, but we might also build a sukkah in the front yard or on the roof or on a balcony, depending on the configuration of our property. For this reason, the Puritans could see the sukkahs that were built by Jews living in the town of Leyden in the Netherlands. The Puritans may have watched their Jewish neighbors as they ate their meals in the sukkah, and as they slept in the sukkah, and sang and celebrated and shook the lulav and etrog, all while giving thanks. It seems that the Puritans also studied the stories in the Bible about how the Israelites were slaves and then they became free and eventually they entered the Promised Land.
The Puritans longed for their own religious freedom in a land that had the promise of a better future for themselves and their families. They actually had religious freedom in the Netherlands, but they had difficulty finding work because the Dutch guilds did not welcome migrants and, therefore, they were not able to work their way up the ladder to get better jobs and earn a good living. In addition, the Puritans were also troubled by the open lifestyle in the Netherlands, and they felt that that lifestyle was just too liberal for them.
For all of these reasons, the Puritans decided to return to England and request permission to migrate to the British colonies in the New World. Some Puritans remained back in the Netherlands, while others traveled to England to make the necessary arrangements. In England, the Puritans obtained permission from the government to create a settlement on the East Coast of the New World between Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Hudson River. They also obtained the permission of the King of England to leave the Church of England and to practice their own faith in the New World on the condition that they would conduct themselves peaceably.
I believe that the dream of the Puritans to come to the New World and enjoy religious freedom in a land of promise was a form of walking in the footsteps of the ancients Israelites whose stories the Puritans learned from reading the Bible. As you may recall, the Negroes who were brought to America in chains for the purpose of serving as slaves also studied the Biblical stories of the Israelites and the exodus and the entering into the promised land. The Biblical model of freedom in a land of promise is also part of the African American dream.
Going back to the Puritans, after they obtained permission to settle in the New World, the Puritans began preparing for the journey. Those who were already in England purchased a ship in London called the Mayflower and they sailed on the Mayflower from London to Southampton where they began purchasing provisions for the journey across the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, the Puritans who were still living in the Netherlands purchased a second ship called the Speedwell. The Speedwell was located in Delfshaven, so the Puritans made their way from Leyden to Delfshaven with all of their possessions. They boarded the Speedwell in Delfshaven in the Netherlands and sailed to Southampton in England where they met up with those who were already preparing the Mayflower for the journey across the Atlantic.
The Puritans had hoped to travel to the New World in both ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Unfortunately, however, the Speedwell was leaking during the voyage from the Netherlands to England, so when they arrived in Southhampton, they spent a week trying to patch her up. Eventually, the two ships set sail from Southhampton, but after a week at sea, they were forced to return to land. They docked at Dartmouth in England and repaired the Speedwell once again. When the repairs were completed, they set sail. After a little over a week at sea, the Puritans were forced to return to land once again. This time, they anchored in Plymouth, England and it was there in Plymouth that they abandoned the Speedwell.
Some of the passengers from the Speedwell were so disappointed and fed up that they abandoned their plans and went home. The others crammed themselves onto the already crowded Mayflower, and the Mayflower and her passengers began the journey across the Atlantic for the third time.
The Puritans made their way across the Atlantic with the biggest challenge being sea sickness. When they finally arrived in the New World, they also ran into stormy weather. Because of the weather, they were not able to reach their intended destination along the Hudson River, and instead, they anchored on Cape Cod in a place that is now called Provincetown Harbor.
All in all, a number of passengers had perished from weather and illness. The survivors left the ship and began exploring the area near where the ship had docked.
Those who make a pilgrimage are called Pilgrims. The Puritans were called Pilgrims because of their pilgrimage to settle in the New World. The Pilgrims spent a month exploring the Cape Cod area, trying to decide where they would build their plantation. On Christmas Day, in the year 1620, the Pilgrims had finally decided upon the place called Plymouth, and they began construction of their first buildings.
Some years earlier, the explorer John Smith had named the place Plymouth. The Pilgrims had set sail from Plymouth in England and now they were building their plantation near Plymouth in the New World. Eleven months after the Pilgrims began construction of their plantation, they had a harvest from their plantings and they gathered with Wampanoag Native Americans for a three-day celebration of the harvest. That celebration was the first Thanksgiving in the New World and it was held in November 1621.
According to historians, the Pilgrims went hunting for meat to enjoy, together with the produce from their harvest. The Wampanoag Native Americans who were living in the area heard gunshots and they thought that the Pilgrims might be preparing for war. So the Wampanoag leader, named Massasoit visited the English settlement with about 90 of his men to see if the rumor about war was actually true.
Massasoit soon realized that the English Pilgrims were only hunting for their harvest celebration, so he sent some of his men to hunt deer for the feast and the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans enjoyed the three-day harvest celebration. That three-day celebration was the first Thanksgiving. It took place in 1621 and the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans feasted on turkey and venison, shellfish and corn, berries, pumpkins and squash.
The connection between the first Thanksgiving and the Jewish festival of Sukkot was not in the foods they ate, and it was also not in the guest list. Rather, it was in the Pilgrims giving of thanks for the harvest and for their freedom to live in a land of promise, a land where they could pursue their faith and their dreams.
The Pilgrims had arrived in the Cape Cod area in November 1620. The following March, a number of Native American leaders had approached the Pilgrims as they began settling the land. A Wampanoag Native American named Squanto helped the Pilgrims grow corn and he also helped them to use fish to fertilize their fields. After several meetings between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, the two peoples joined together to protect one another from the other tribes in the area. This joining together for protection began in March 1621, just four months after the Pilgrims had arrived in the New World. The first Thanksgiving celebration took place seven months after the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans had already joined together to protect one another. All in all, it was a full year from the Pilgrim’s arrival to the three-day harvest celebration that has come to be known as the First Thanksgiving.
It also seems that the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was not actually a religious festival. It was indeed a celebration of the harvest, but it was not a religious celebration. Two years later, in 1623, the Pilgrims – who by then were known as colonists – gave thanks for the rain that had finally fallen after two months of drought. The Thanksgiving celebration of 1623 was the first religious celebration of Thanksgiving and it became part of the legacy of holding religious services on Thanksgiving to give thanks for the bounty in our lives.
Sukkot is a harvest festival and a festival of thanksgiving. The joining together of the Wampanoag Native Americans and the Puritan Pilgrims for the first Thanksgiving was the result of the agreement that had already been made between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans seven months earlier, namely the agreement to protect one another. Massasoit and his 90 Wampanoag men came over to the Pilgrim village because Massasoit wanted to know if they were going to war, and if they were going to war, he wanted to know if they needed his help them because of their agreement of protection. The shifting from preparing to help in a war to preparing for a feast is a nice shift, but the main shift from being strangers to being friends was already in place between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans even before the first Thanksgiving.
I think that the relationship between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans is important to commemorate, because we tend to marginalize our sense of the Pilgrims and the colonists as being bent on the destruction of the Native Americans and their habitat in order to make room for the culture and habitat of those who were arriving in the New World and wanting to settle here. That was also an unfortunately reality, of course, but notwithstanding that reality, it turns out that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated between two peoples who had a bond with on another that was based on an agreement to protect each other, and the celebration included meat that was hunted by both the Native Americans and the Pilgrims.
The Jewish connection with Thanksgiving is both the connection of the Puritan Pilgrims looking to the Bible for the ideal of finding freedom in a land of promise, and the linking of giving thanks for the harvest and for rain. There is also a Jewish connection that goes the other way, namely that Jewish congregations began holding services on Thanksgiving and they used prayers from Hallel, the thanksgiving service that we recite on the new moon and the festivals of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. So Jewish tradition contributed a tendril to the root of the American Feast of Thanksgiving and Jews has also borrowed a tendril from the American Thanksgiving and brought it back into Jewish practice by holding a service of thanks on the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
Some Jewish congregations hold their own Thanksgiving service, while other Jewish congregations join together with congregations of other faiths to give thanks and celebrate their unity and friendship before everyone goes off to have a meal with their own respective relatives and friends. Some congregations organize on their own to serve a meal to the poor, while others join with two or more congregations to provide a Thanksgiving meal for the poor.
How blessed we are to be part of this great nation of the United States of America. We are not a perfect nation. The genocide against the Native Americans is not something of which we can be proud, but many immigrants have settled on this land and we and our ancestors are among those immigrants who have become, or are becoming, natives on this land. May the American dream continue for us and our descendants. May the American dream embody the Native Americans who continue to live on this land. And may the American dream also continue for those immigrants who have come to this land more recently, and those who will come to this land in the future. May we all learn to live together in peace and may we all merit to give thanks for the bounty of our lives on Thanksgiving and all year long.
 Venison is deer meat.