I'm Dreaming of a Not-So-White Thanksgivukkah

We're pleased to guest host today this fun post from Jodi Eichler-Levine, a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and author of the (almost) brand-new Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children's Literature.

Jodi Eichler-Levine

In just fourteen more shopping days, American Jews will get to celebrate a “once in 70,000 years” occasion: Thanksgivukkah. Yes, our annual United States ode to gluttony and football will fall on the first full day of Hanukkah, a minor Jewish festival that commemorates a military victory over the Seleucid Greeks—and some other Judeans-- in the 160s BCE.

These two holidays live large our mythic imagination. Both celebrate the birth of “freedom” by hearkening back to moments that were not precisely free. Both show how we—Americans of all and no religious stripes—portray our forebears as those who sacrificed for freedom. Thanksgiving provides a striking litmus test for inclusion into the pantheon of American civic heroes. Hanukkah has long endowed Jews with a strong entrance into American winter consumerism and the multicultural sharing of feel-good difference. It seems to be a shidduch—quite a match, one might say.  As marketing professional Deborah Gittell told the Los Angeles Daily News, “Both stories are about the right to practice one’s religion and be free… That’s something to really rally around.” But what complex moves of identity are happening underneath those rally caps—and are they new?

Since the colonial period and the earliest days of the republic, American Jews have waxed poetic about their patriotic devotions, and the Maccabees have often been drafted as the quarterbacks of these patriotic plays. In Chanukah: Feast of Lights, a popular mid-twentieth century anthology, Emily Solis-Cohen quotes Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who stated, “As part of the eternal world-wide struggle for democracy, the struggle of the Maccabees is of eternal world-wide interest … it is a struggle in which all Americans, non-Jews as well as Jews, should be vitally interested because they are vitally affected.” In other words, Cold War era Jews had something to prove. Jews mattered for freedom. The Maccabees were Americans before there were Americans.

A much more recent connection between Hanukkah and patriotic freedom can be seen in the picture book Hanukkah at Valley Forge, which imaginatively portrays General George Washington lighting a menorah with a Polish Jewish soldier who tells him, “In my homeland, I could not follow my beliefs either. That is why I came to America.” The soldier describes the miraculous Hanukkah story to Washington, and they compare notes on struggling against evil tyrants. I’m going to read this one to my daughter someday, I really am, but the poor kid is also going to have to hear me lecture about just how little religious freedom (a troubled concept) the Hasmonean dynasty provided to its subjects.

Long before the advent (sorry) of the Menurkey, children’s book authors also used Thanksgiving to graft American Jews into membership in the American body politic. In Molly’s Pilgrim, which has become something of a classic in the world of Jewish children’s literature, Barbara Cohen tells the story of how Molly, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants in 1904, is instructed to create a Pilgrim doll for her school’s Thanksgiving Day celebration.

Molly’s immigrant status already leads her to feel out of place among her classmates; her identity confusion is further compounded when her mother—perhaps the original helicopter parent, or would this be a Jewish mother stereotype?-- volunteers to make the doll for her. Instead of creating a pilgrim like the “usual” ones, Molly’s mother crafts a clothespin Russian babushka doll, in a colorful dress, with her hair wrapped in a kerchief. Molly complains that, “she doesn't look like the Pilgrim woman in the picture in my reading book ... She looks like you in that photograph you have that was taken when you were a girl.” Her mother reports that this was intentional: “What’s a Pilgrim, shaynkeit (my beautiful one)? ... A Pilgrim is someone who came here from the other side to find freedom. That's me, Molly. I’m a Pilgrim!”

Cohen thus unmasks the construction of the American Pilgrim: she introduces the disjunction between the black-clad, white English Protestants and the diverse immigrants who arrived in their wake. This tension is exacerbated when Molly brings her doll to school and is mocked by her classmates. Her teacher, however, authenticates the legitimacy of Molly’s pilgrim: “Molly's mother is a Pilgrim. She’s a modern Pilgrim. She came here … so she could worship God in her own way, in peace and freedom … It will remind us all that Pilgrims are still coming to America.”

This vision, of course, excludes Native Americans—who, like Jews, experienced modern genocide, but one that conveniently lies beyond the pages of Thanksgiving story books. For the logic of Molly’s Pilgrim, Rifka’s First Thanksgiving, and other books of this genre to work, American Jews must be understood as 1) Ashkenazic Europeans, who identify as 2) Puritans, not Native Americans. (See Rachel Rubinstein’s amazing Members of the Tribe for much further complexity on the history of this pairing). Passing was and is required--- but it is receding, as we will see below.

Molly is not accepted as an American when she is just a Jew from Russia. Once she and her family are “Pilgrims,” though, they are not only accepted, but celebrated, becoming a necessary ingredient for the Thanksgiving cornucopia. Remembering as an American becomes a means of being American. In this way, her strangeness is transformed into chosenness. The book closes with Molly’s affirmation that “it takes all kinds of Pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving.” End scene. Hold hands, make some cardboard turkeys, and sing.

Thanksgivukkah, with its comical, hyperbolic stance, has taken this feeling of being “at home in America” to
its logical extreme: it has conjured an American shtetl out of American gothic. One of the most popular items of merchandise is the American Gothikkah poster ($18; ten percent of proceeds go to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger).  Kim DeMarco, the artist who created the mash-up image, told USA Today that, “It’s very much like the heartland. It’s like the American equivalent of the Mona Lisa.”

She also discussed a telling tension during the development of the poster: the debate over whether or not it would be offensive to portray the farmer in a traditional Eastern European shtreimel (worn by some sects). Ultimately, “that was the one way to identify him as Jewish that was also a crowd-pleaser.” There it is! We have moved from a longing for erasure to an ironic embrace of exotic difference in the space of just three or four generations. Although it will not happen again in our lifetimes—or, in all likelihood, during the lifetime of our species--- Thanskgivukkah last occurred in 1888: when Hasidic Jews still lived in Eastern Europe and some of their relatives were fleeing pogroms and coming to the United States in a massive wave of Jewish immigration. Those Jews wanted to pass as Americans. They paid the “price of whiteness,” lost their Yiddish and many customs, and gained both literally and metaphorical citizenship, along with religious respectability. This is not at all a simple declension narrative, I know. Anecdotally, though, now—even after decades of reclaiming Jewish heritage—Jews are so un-recognizable in the eyes of some beholders that I had one semester where none of my students here in the actual Midwest realized that Jerry Seinfeld was Jewish. But Matisyahu, in his Hasidic phase? Absolutely. He had a hat.

Colonial historians know that the first Thanksgiving meal more likely featured eels than turkey, so why not go whole hog (sorry) and have some brussel sprouts with pastrami  instead of bacon? Gorgonzola mashed potato latkes- perhaps with cranberry applesauce on the side? Why not? Here is where I should admit that I write today not to mourn Thanksgivvukah, but to praise it. Perhaps we are so gleeful over this holiday because, as one joke goes, American Jews are “just like other Americans …. only more so.” What’s fascinating, uncanny, and delightful about the plethora of Thanksgivvukah recipes making the Internet rounds is their hybridity. No dress up in somber buckle hats or racist faux-headresses will be required. Some Hasidic garb, well, maybe. Ultimately, though, as we all meet at the Kitchen Aid ™ interstices of identity, American Jews can have their sweet potato sufganiyot… and eat them, too.


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