Jews do not generally treat civil holidays as Jewish holidays. While some might mark them in some manner, others don’t even do that. With regard to the American holiday of Thanksgiving, a minority even question the halakhic permissibility of eating turkey, the quintessential holiday dish, as it is not listed in the Torah as one of the permissible fowl. (And how can a Jew watch American football, played with a ‘pigskin’!?)
Those detractors would therefore find it quite surprising to know that at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish & Portuguese synagogue of New York, Thanksgiving is celebrated with the festival prayer halel! While the blessing isn’t recited, many of the psalms from it are sung as they would be on any other Jewish festival. In fact, they’ve been doing so almost every year since the first national Thanksgiving was declared by George Washington in 1789.
The popular image of Thanksgiving is of Native people and Pilgrims (Brits!) sharing a meal of peace in the early 1600s. However, when President Washington declared it, he was doing so in response to the victory of the American Revolution and the establishment of the American Constitution. He asked that all Americans make it a day of thanksgiving and to give thanks to God. While Christians went to their churches, the Jews of New York went to their synagogue on Mill St. in lower Manhattan.
Gershom Mendes Seixas, the minister of Shearith Israel in 1789, spoke at that first Thanksgiving service. He celebrated how Jews saw themselves as both ‘chosen’ and therefore apart, but also as equal citizens as part of America. He argued that as the Chosen People Jews had an even greater obligation to conduct themselves as model citizens and to support the state. Indeed, this model of integration has typified the Spanish & Portuguese Jews throughout the ages, from their time back in Spain up until the present day.
Many early American Jews had actively participated in the Revolution. They surely celebrated its success, but perhaps more personally they celebrated the civil equality which they now enjoyed in their newly constituted country. The 1776 Declaration of Independence had declared that ‘All men are created equal.’ (Some Jewish loyalists fled to Montreal which was located in what was then newly British Canada. There they helped found a new congregation which they named Shearith Israel. An S&P community that I have yet to visit!)
Many Shearith Israel members came from families that were once forced to hide their Jewish identities in the Iberian Peninsula. Indeed, Seixes’ own father, Isaac, had been born in Lisbon, Portugal. His family escaped to London in 1725, before going to the American colonies in 1730. Equality had therefore once been unimaginable to them. While it was a notion which they had already enjoyed as British subjects, it had never been articulated as vehemently and as eloquently as it had now been by Thomas Jefferson. America immortalised equality with those words.
Early American Jews were further reassured the following year. In 1790, President Washington wrote a letter to President Moses Seixas, the brother of Minister Seixes. Moses was the Parnas (president) of the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish congregation of Newport, R.I., Jeshuat Israel. President Washington heralded that “The Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
The idea of ‘hoda’ah‘ or thanksgiving has always been a Jewish notion, making this holiday a natural fit for those early American Jews. Indeed, in one of the great twists of fait, the Hebrew for turkey is Hodu, a word that also means thanksgiving!
(Hodu is also used in the Bible to refer to India (Hindu?), which Europeans at first mistakenly associated with the Americas).