Friday, June 26, 2009

Thanksgiving At Home and Abroad

I've written elsewhere about Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s home in Bensonhurst and many readers took the trouble to tell me how evocative they found my reminiscences. Today, however, I’d like to write about a different set of Thanksgivings entirely.

As many of you know, Joan and I lived abroad for sixteen out of the nineteen years between our New York past and our New York present. (I can hardly refer to living in California as “living abroad,” although you could certainly argue the point. But I digress…and sixteen out of nineteen is still a lot.) In the course of those years, one in Israel, two in Germany, and thirteen in western Canada, our children were born and we both grew from the just-out-of-graduate-school, just-figuring-it-all-out mode into the rabbi and educator we are today. And, throughout all those years away, Thanksgiving was always part of our lives. In Israel, our first year away, we were invited to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in Jerusalem, which was fun…but which also felt a little peculiar precisely because of the spirituality inherent in the holiday: the notion of Jewish people living (even temporarily) in the Jewish state embracing a non-Jewish festival devoted to the cultivation of a sense of beholdenness and gratitude to the God of Israel was more than just peculiar, maybe even a bit disorienting. We moved on.

In Germany, we lived in Heidelberg, home of the headquarters of the American army in Europe. As members of the tiny percentage of Americans present who were not somehow connected to the armed forces (and Joan wasn’t even an American in those days, just a Canadian with an expired green card), we again found Thanksgiving to have a strange feel to it, but for different reasons than we did in Israel. In Heidelberg, the Americans—the vast majority of them—took pride not in how much they were able to integrate themselves into the culture of their host nation (if that’s what you’d call Germany with respect to its army of occupation), but in how totally they were able to insulate themselves from it. You almost never saw American soldiers or their dependents downtown. They avoided German shops, avoided department stores, were almost never present (at least not visibly or noticeably) at concerts, lectures, or public gatherings. Instead, they constructed an almost hermetically sealed private universe just for themselves, one complete with its own movie theaters, its own stores, its own cultural events, even its own radio and television stations. Shut out of that world entirely (and not really wishing it otherwise, except when in need of children’s Tylenol and other American products unavailable in Germany’s almost relentlessly homeopathic pharmacies), we took pride in the fact that we, as opposed to almost all my countrymen, were there to learn about another nation, not to look at it through sealed windows. (That the specter of the Shoah and the ghosts of its victims were our constant companions during those years only made our sentiments that much stronger and more vivid. But we did take pride in the fact that I had come to teach Jewish studies in a Jewish school, thus personally doing my tiny part to undo the fiend’s effort to eradicate Jewish learning in that place. And the last thing we wished was not to encounter Germans. The whole point of our sojourn was to try to grapple with the past by encountering the present, not to deal with the one by ignoring the other.)

Thanksgiving, therefore, was an odd time in Germany. We were in our “proud to be different” mode in those days: pleased not to be in the army’s sealed cocoon, pleased not to be afraid of experiencing our host culture (those words again!) in its own terms. We did Thanksgiving. How could we not? But we invited some of my German students over instead of army friends, ate turkey, told some bowdlerized version of the Pilgrims and Indians story (made up, I believe, by myself on the spot), ate pumpkin pie (itself a rare treat in that Germans, as far as I could see, didn’t eat pumpkins, as a result of which they were never for sale in the markets. Ours was a present from an army friend of Joan’s, if I recall correctly.) And we were thankful…for the good in our lives, for the fellowship of my colleagues and the friendliness of my Jewish and German students, for our new baby (Max was six months old when we arrived in Heidelberg), for all of it!

Making the whole thing just that much weirder was the fact that during the same week that featured our Thanksgiving, Germany was having its own festival: the redoubtable Buss- und Bettag, the national day of repentance mostly directed, at least since the last war, at coming to terms with the crimes of the Nazis. (Buss- und Bettag, which means literally “Day of Repentance and Prayer,” has its own interesting history. It was introduced in the nineteenth century as a national day of prayer and reconciliation, was demoted from national to religious holiday during the Second World War, then reintroduced afterwards as a national holiday, which it was during our years in Heidelberg. Later on, in the 1990s, it was again demoted to a non-obligatory holiday. It’s a bit like Veterans Day here—a holiday for banks and the post office on which stores are all open and business is carried on.) So there we were, an American rabbi, his Canadian wife, and a tableful of German students balanced precariously between Buss- und Bettag and Thanksgiving, between looking back balefully and thankfully. I don’t think I’ll have any more Thanksgivings quite that odd…or, I do have to admit, as satisfying in a way that is hard adequately to describe this far after the fact.

And then we came to Canada. Canada does have Thanksgiving, but it falls in October, usually on the American Columbus Day. Further north, earlier harvest! But it is a strictly Gentile holiday north of the border. Jews don’t do it. They certainly don’t gather in each other’s homes to eat turkey. No pilgrims, either. A church festival that somehow gained the status of federal holiday, not unlike Christmas. And the Jewish response is much the same: the pleasure of a day off from work without any concomitant sense of obligation actually to do anything about it. As an American, that struck me as the oddest of all. For a while, we and some other ex-pat Americans tried to do some sort of Thanksgiving in November, but we eventually stopped bothering, then even really noticing. My daughter Lucy was born on Thanksgiving, in fact, but I only realized that after the fact when I called home to announce her birth and my dad reminded me that it was a holiday in the States. Oh well, I thought…we’ll eventually come home and people won’t think Lucy was born in October when I saw she was born on Thanksgiving! And so we did!

I hope you all had very satisfying Thanksgivings in the company of family and friends. More to the point, I hope we are all united in our deep sense of gratitude to God for all that we have, and for all the blessings we enjoy every day in this great land. I am thankful for our freedoms, thankful for being privileged to live here in a land of plenty populated by a citizenry devoted to the finest principles of self-government, thankful for everything. I feel blessed in every way, and grateful for my life beyond the telling of it. I know—I hope!—you join me in that sentiment. And that it carries through as we make our way forward into the coming year, into the days and years that will constitute the rest of all our lives (November 21, 2007)

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