Sitting down to the well-set table every November, even though it is filled with family and food, I always feel that something is missing: a Jewish connection to the Thanksgiving story.
A dinner without the drama of the Exodus, like the Passover seder, leaves me just with the turkey to send my spirits soaring.
It’s not that I need another Haggada — I already know why this night is different: the stuffing isn’t made of matza meal. But what about borrowing the idea of the seder’s four cups of wine — the Tu B’Shevat seder does this, as well — to help organize the evening in a Jewish way?
Liking the idea of repeating an action four times but wanting a change from raising a glass, I played thematically with four feathers, four fall leaves, even sticking four olives — so American, yet a fruit of Israel, too — on my fingers.
For inspiration I turned to William Bradford, a passenger on the Mayflower and later the governor of Plymouth colony, who as it turned out was a figure who could bridge the gap between Puritan and Jewish narratives.
In Of Plymouth Plantation, his journal of the Pilgrims, Bradford made comparative references between the Pilgrims’ voyage and the Israelites’ Exodus. Later in life, according to Stephen O’Neill, the curator of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass., Bradford “taught himself Hebrew,” even writing a book of Hebrew exercises.
According to Bradford’s journal, the Mayflower Pilgrims gave thanks upon their landing: “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees & blessed ye God of heaven, who had brought them over ye vast & furious ocean,” reads the text.
“Let them therfore praise ye Lord, because he is good,” wrote Bradford, quoting from Psalm 107, which in Hebrew begins with the word hodu (give thanks). Here was my repeating element.
Saying hodu, or thanks, four times in my Thanksgiving seder would work, and in a fortuitous Hebrew play on words, hodu also happens to mean “turkey.”
First hodu: Begin your Thanksgiving seder with a blessing over a glass of wine or juice. Though historians think the Pilgrims probably drank water at the first Thanksgiving, they were not teetotalers — they later produced a hard cider, even a watered-down version for children.
Then say a Sheheheyanu. During their first year in the New World, slightly more than half of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers survived. Sitting together around the table and saying this blessing — especially in a year when nature has made it painfully clear how fragile life can be — reminds us that God grants us life, sustains us, and enables us to reach this day.
Since the first Thanksgiving followed the corn harvest, the Hamotzi blessing is in order. Break some bread — at this seder you don’t even need to dip it once. Say a hodu for a cornucopia of blessings.
Second hodu: In 1621, Edward Winslow wrote a letter to a friend in England describing the first Thanksgiving meal shared by the Pilgrims with the Indians: “Our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.”
Adding to the menu, we find in Winslow’s account that to help feed the assemblage, including 90 from the Wampanoag tribe and “their greatest king Massasoit,” the Native Americans “went out and killed five deer.”
At your table, ever thankful that someone else has done the “fowling,” and that you haven’t hit a deer with your car, somebody should hold up the turkey (or Tofurky) platter and thank the “greatest” cook.
To add a sense of family tradition to the meal, also hold up the other dishes, acknowledging what the guest households — the tribes — have contributed to the meal. One should ask, from whom was the recipe passed down?
For tables with children in elementary school, it’s also a good time for show and tell. One should ask, from what did you make that lovely centerpiece? Go ahead and kvell.
Say a hodu of recognition and dig in to your Thanksgiving meal.
Third hodu: Before dessert, talk about the perilous journey of the Pilgrims toward religious freedom from England to Holland and finally to Plymouth. Each person at the table can introduce the story of their own family about coming to America; one should tell of the going out.
Say a hodu of freedom and feel free to indulge in pie.
Fourth hodu: Last year, having a guitar-playing guest at our Thanksgiving dinner really gave us a chance to sing out our feelings. After dessert we sang old American favorites like “Turkey in the Straw” and “If I Had a Hammer.”
This year I want to add a passage from “Birkat hamazon,” the grace after meals that begins with the words “Kakatuv, v’achalta v’savata” (“And you shall eat and have enough, and then you shall thank the Lord your God for the good land He gave you.”)
Say a final hodu: As a guest, for the hospitality of your hosts. As a host, for the opportunity to bring together your family and friends.
Then pray you can get up from the table.