Thanksgiving (and Chanukah): When the Story Cannot Hold

Posted on November 26, 2021

Rabbi Jordana Schuster Battis
Temple Shir Tikva, Wayland, MA  •  November 26, 2021  •  23 Kislev 57
82

This is a sermon about what we do when we come up against the fact that the stories we’ve been telling ourselves about ourselves and about the world we live in can no longer hold.  It is a sermon about unweaving narratives that can no longer fit us and weaving new ones that can.

For instance:

By this point, I think that most of us are aware that the Thanksgiving story many of us learned growing up—with happy Pilgrims and happy Indians eating corn together and expressing a cornucopia’s worth of gratitude—is not really how things went down.

I, like many of you, grew up at a time when Thanksgiving was heralded in elementary school with hand-outline turkeys and coloring pages of little Pilgrims in their little Pilgrim buckle shoes and their little Pilgrim buckle hats. We learned that the Pilgrims fled persecution in their own land to seek out religious freedom in this “new world” and that the native people they met taught them how to make it through the harsh New England winter.  Then, when the fall came, the Pilgrims and the local native group came together to celebrate their harvest.

Those of us who grew up with that story are now coming to terms with the fact that Thanksgiving Day does not represent such a clear cut story of goodwill and shared bounty after all.  We know now that when the Pilgrims came to this land, they were so assured of their right to be here, and of the native peoples’ inferiority, that they took enormous liberties, squashing freedoms far more than their own freedoms had been squashed before.  As Wampanoag writer and historian Paula Peters explains,

As part of their feast of celebration of the harvest, [the Puritan] militia decided to rally off gunshots from their muskets. And that was deemed threatening to the local Wampanoag, who showed up armed and ready for battle. When they realized that there was not a threat, they were invited to stay….[1] for a tense, diplomatic meal that may or may not have included turkey.[2]

Leading up to this time, those same Puritans had stolen the Wampanoag people’s stores of food and had (possibly unwittingly) dug up Wampanoag graves.  Though they came to this land in the name of religious freedom, they denied this same right to those they encountered, demanding that local indigenous peoples become Christian.  The Europeans who came to the continents that are now North and South America caused the deaths of millions of indigenous people by spreading diseases that native peoples did not have the immunities to fight—and tens of thousands of the small percentage who survived were forcibly displaced from their homes.

The fact that we now celebrate Thanksgiving in the way we do represents the erasure of centuries of injustice perpetrated on indigenous peoples in this land.

I am grateful to say that my own children have not been taught the same fairy tale in school that I was raised on. But, I will admit that I feel it as a loss as well: a loss of my own innocence, and a reckoning with injustices I have, mostly unknowingly, participated in upholding.  And then, there the loss of the beautiful myth of Thanksgiving itself—which might sound like such a petty thing to let go of, but is actually so big.  I love Thanksgiving.  I love Thanksgiving food.  I love coming together as a family, in those years that we can.  As a rabbi, I love a holiday that involves all of the eating and none of the responsibility that most holidays I celebrate require.  And I love the fact that we come together around the theme of gratitude. Even with all of the holidays and daily reminders we have as Jews to be grateful, Thanksgiving is a unique time each year when we do so as Americans.  It would be a loss to me to let go of that.

So, what is a person to do—what is a rabbi to do—who wants to hold on to Thanksgiving but does not want to continue participating in the untrue stories of the past?  It is not as simple as just upholding the gratitude part, when so much harm has been done in the same holiday’s name.

 

At any time when one’s story can no longer hold, we have three options.  We know these from many other times in our history as a Jewish people.

The first is that we can dig in to the story we’ve been handed.  “Don’t tread on my Thanksgiving!,” we can say.  “It’s a beautiful story and I like it that way.”  We will “gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” and anyone who doesn’t like it is not being a good, grateful American—or something like that.  We can embrace the Pilgrims’ zealotry and believe that only we are right.  It is not the best option.

The second option is to walk away from the story all together.  Not celebrate the holiday.  Use it as a day of protest and solidarity as part of the National Day of Mourning that has been held annually by Native peoples since 1970.  I will admit, I am not there yet, and I may not get there, given the other things that this holiday represents for me, in my family.  For now, I want to find a way to hold on, though I know that someday I may come to another conclusion.

The third option is what we as Jews have done for centuries when a story we have held dear can no longer fit:  we unweave the narrative and weave it back together with new meaning.

The ancient rabbis who reinvented Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem felt strongly that violence should not be celebrated.  They had survived the Romans’ conquest and felt that zealotry and war were no longer an option.  But, the people they led had a holiday they loved:  Chanukah, which celebrated the Maccabees’ dogma-laden militancy and their guerilla warfare against the armies of Antiochus three centuries before.  So the rabbis unwove the narrative.  They emphasized, instead, the story of the miracle of the oil, placing “spiritual survival”[3] at the heart of the holiday, rather than combat.  They rewove the story, not eliminating the Maccabees from it but interlacing a sense of wonder, an honoring of survival, and a celebration of peoplehood as the warp to the Maccabees’ weft.  They did such a masterful job that most of us learned the story of Chanukah as one of brave warriors who ensured that the spirit of the people could carry on.

We are not there yet with the story of Thanksgiving.  It needs to be unwoven more before we can maybe, someday, reweave it again together with the indigenous peoples whose lives were shattered in the name of that day.  At that point, may we truly have reason to be grateful, even as we honor the injustices of the past.  At that point, may we find reason for awe together with tears, celebrating what has come to be while acknowledging what can be no more.

Bibliography

“The Indigenous Stories Glossed Over in The Typical ‘First Thanksgiving’ Story,” https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1059018219 (November 24, 2021)

“The Mashpee Wampanoag want you to know the full history behind Thanksgiving,” https://www.npr.org/2021/11/25/1059262045/the-mashpee-wampanoag-want-you-to-know-the-full-history-behind-thanksgiving (November 25, 2021)

“‘The gooey overlay of sweetness over genocide’: the myth of the ‘first Thanksgiving,’” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/nov/25/thanksgiving-myth-wampanoag-native-american-tribe (November 25, 2021)

“Variables: The Story Of… Smallpox – and other Deadly Eurasian Germs,” Guns, Germs, and Steel, https://www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/variables/smallpox.html (2005)

Notes

[1] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1059018219

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/nov/25/thanksgiving-myth-wampanoag-native-american-tribe

[3] Rabbi Joshua Segal, https://www.facebook.com/groups/ccarmembers/permalink/4731516280220880/.