We Jews have had a longtime loving relationship with a holiday that’s not actually part of our history. After all, few, if any, of our ancestors disembarked from the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. We were ensconced in other places, mostly Eastern European shtetls. Did our forefathers feast with the Native Americans on that first Thanksgiving? Not only is it unlikely, rare was the occasion when most of our forefathers feasted at all.
But even this we share with many of our countrymen. There were no Italians on the Mayflower. Or Muslims. Or blacks. Or Asians. Yet here we are, so we gather together to ask for blessings on a day that truly celebrates the joy in being welcomed in this place, so unique in the world.
Our origins aside, we are all true Americans, and Thanksgiving became a celebration that we could enjoy with one another — big time. Rather than our parallel lives — their Christmas to our Chanukah, their Easter to our Pesach — this was the one big eating holiday that we had in common. We could even translate their recipes to our own: Kosher turkey? Yes! Sweet potatoes? Yes. Marshmallows? Well, that one’s a little tricky. But apple pie? Yes indeed.
But we took more than the tradition of food to our own homes and hearths. Growing up in Newark’s Weequahic, the annual high school football game against Hillside on Thanksgiving morning became an essential part of the big day, never to be missed. In retrospect, I can’t figure out why. First of all, I hate football; I’ve never even understood the rules (I have baseball down pat). But more to the point, on Thanksgiving Weequahic always (!) lost.
Our mostly Jewish players were defeated before the game even began. In my entire childhood in Newark, I remember one year only — 1951, I think — when Weequahic won. Aside from that one aberration, the game seemed preordained. We would sit in Untermann Field, wrapped in blankets, frozen to our core, and watch our fearful players lose their dignity year after year. They knew they couldn’t win, and so did we.
Nonetheless, our adorable cheerleaders went through their routines, our proud marching band stirred our emotions, and our majorettes strutted as if victory was on the way. It wasn’t.
Once the game was decided, never in our favor, we all headed home for the real Thanksgiving. We felt that we had earned the meal by exercising our lungs in the bitter cold as we cheered our team on to the inevitable defeat.
In our house my mother was always the willing and dedicated chef. I can still taste the food, and despite my best efforts, I have never been good enough to master her recipes. I will try again this year. Another inevitable defeat!
The guest list varied not at all, and the pre-meal discussions were always the same. There were my aunt and uncle, my two cousins in tow, who always arrived at least an hour late. My mother kvetched, as if this would stop the turkey from drying out. We tried to tell them the wrong time — “We’re starting at 2,” even though we actually planned to eat at 3 ¬— but somehow that never worked. But their tardiness was always a conversation starter as we waited, so not all was lost.
Once the meal was convened, there were no ceremonies. I don’t even recall making Hamotzi on the bread. We were so American. On Thanksgiving it was just wait for late guests and then dig in.
I recall the special joy of looking out the front window on Thanksgiving Day, watching the leaves flying in the wind, the clouds blocking the sun. There was hardly any traffic, pedestrian or auto. There was the grayness that belied our wonderful festivities inside, where the fragrances and the family gathering brought such joy and sense of gratitude that we were here, in these United States of America, celebrating our belonging, and truly giving thanks for it all.
Even if (when) we lost the football game. After all, that was truly part of our very own tradition.