My zaidy a pilgrim? It may, at first glance, seem like a crazy statement, but it’s true. In fact, all of our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents were pilgrims.
Many years ago while I was a yeshiva student, the administration wanted us to start a school newspaper. I chose to do an editorial on Thanksgiving. As it happened, the school cook was not Jewish. That year she went out and bought kosher turkeys with her own money for the boys for Thanksgiving. The yeshiva, though, did not want to officially recognize Thanksgiving as a holiday celebrated by Jews, so the cook was prohibited from serving the turkeys on Thanksgiving. She was told to save them for another day.
Now don’t get me wrong: I had a good experience at this yeshiva, and would even send my own children there. Nevertheless, this incident rubbed me the wrong way. I wrote a respectful editorial on the subject titled “My Zaidy was a Pilgrim.” The newspaper never came to fruition, and the article was never published.
I am now older with school-age children of my own, and I still meet many Jews who share the view held by my yeshiva – that Thanksgiving is not a holiday for Jews. Personally, I feel this view is misguided, as it fails to acknowledge why we are living here. Jews of previous generations were proud to have settled in America and they embraced its freedoms and culture.
My zaidy, on my fathers’ side, came to America in the early part of the last century. He came here as a young man, on a boat (I’ve seen a picture of it), to make a better life for himself. Sounds like a Pilgrim to me. If he and millions of others like him had not made the sacrifice of leaving homes and families behind, where would we be today?
In speaking to people on this subject, I’ve come across a range of opinions regarding the nonobservance of Thanksgiving by Jews. Most of those reasons center on the lack of specific Jewish reference to the holiday.
One person told me his family only celebrated those holidays that pertained to Jews on a religious level. And since there was no classical Jewish reference to the Thanksgiving story, his family would not recognize it. When I said I didn’t expect him to say Hallel on that day, he told me I was making too big a deal of the whole thing. He admitted, however, that his family did go to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Another person whose opinion I recently sought started quoting statements he’d heard from a few rabbis, but in general sort of dodged the question.
I fully understand that in Judaism there is a concept of “u’bchukosahem lo salachu” – that we should not follow the ways of the surrounding non-Jewish culture. O.K., so don’t eat turkey and watch a parade. If you’d rather take the day off and spend it learning in a shul or bais medrash, by all means follow your heart – but give special thanks to Hashem for allowing us to live in a country where we are free to do so.