Thursday, November 28, 2013

The True Meaning of Thanksgivingukkah

By Mike Dorf

Today is "Thanksgivingukkah," the extraordinarily rare--as in once in 70,000 years--convergence of Thanksgiving and the first day of Hannukah. The strange confluence has provided pundits with the opportunity to promote oddball recipes like turkey corpse cooked in Maneschewitz wine or sweet- potato latkes. For me, as both a vegan and an ethnically-identifying-but-non-religious American Jew, the coincidence of these two problematic holidays provides an interesting opportunity for reflection. I find that the two holidays are in some ways mirror images: The core message of Thanksgiving was a pleasant lie but the holiday has become a horror show, whereas Hannukah's origins are terrible but it has become mostly harmless.  Let me explain.

When I was in elementary school in the early 1970s, I was taught that the first Thanksgiving occurred in 1621 and it was a celebration of peaceful cooperation between native Americans (then still called Indians) and the Pilgrim settlers. It was always a bit of a myth and the holiday did not really get going until the 19th century. Then it evolved, first becoming more religious and then less religious, but that original idea of cross-cultural cooperation was something worth promoting--although I certainly understand how contemporary native Americans might resent the day as a whitewash of genocide.

As a vegan I find the mainstream contemporary version of Thanksgiving repugnant. From the White House "pardoning" of a particular turkey to the commonplace reference to Thanksgiving as "turkey day," Thanksgiving is one of the few occasions during the year when omnivorous Americans seem to acknowledge that their gustatory pleasure is purchased by killing billions of innocent beings. That very acknowledgment belies the familiar bromide that awareness is the first step towards change.

Socrates believed that people only do bad because they don't know the good. Paul McCartney reportedly said that "if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian." These are nice sentiments but they're naive. People who oppose the death penalty sometimes say that executions should be televised as a means of demonstrating how brutal it is, but when executions were public, they were enjoyed like sporting events. So I regard the comfort that people have with talking openly about the killing of turkeys, even if only around Thanksgiving, as a sign of how far we vegans have to go to win hearts and minds.

Hannukah, meanwhile, celebrates the military triumph of a group--the Maccabees--who were the Second Century BC equivalent of the Taliban. Today largely described as fighting for national self-determination and religious freedom, the Maccabees were religious fundamentalists who also attacked and forcibly converted "Hellenized" Jews, i.e., Jews who had assimilated to the dominant Greek culture--with its dreaded mathematics, drama, art, and philosophy. The Python boys were depicting a clash that occurred a couple of centuries after the Maccabee revolt, but they nicely captured the problem with the fundamentalist/nationalist Jewish uprising in the "What have the Romans ever done for us?" scene in The Life of Brian.

If highly problematic in its origins, Hannukah has nonetheless become a largely harmless holiday for contemporary American Jews. We celebrate this relatively minor festival as a Jewish alternative to Christmas. And since Christmas itself is probably merely an adaptation by Christianity of pagan festivals, modern Hannukah is a simulacrum of a simulacrum. We can decry Hannukah's true origins (as I have just done), but that really misses the point. Hannukah's significance has nothing to do with history and everything to do with the calendar.  If Tisha B'Av (a Jewish fast day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, as well as other catastrophes) rather than Hannukah occurred in December, American Jews would mark Tisha B'Av by giving presents and wishing one another a "happy Tisha B'Av".

One might think that Hannukah's coincidence with Thanksgiving rather than Christmas this year makes it difficult to conceptualize Hannukah as the Jewish Christmas, but in fact it's easy. The enshrinement in recent years of the day after Thanksgiving as "Black Friday"--and the still-more-recent practice of retailers holding Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day itself--have made of the Thanksgiving-through-Christmas season an undifferentiated holiday of consumerism, a kind of suburban sprawl on the calendar.  Given this hyper-commercialization, it is fair to say that increasingly, the period from late November through late December may aptly be described as Thanksgivingmas.  And so there should be nothing at all odd about American Jews celebrating Thanksgivingukkah, for it is the perfectly natural counterpart to the holiday now celebrated each year by most of our Christian neighbors. It may take another 70,000 years for Thanksgivingukkah to return as an official matter. But in spirit, Thanksgivingukkah will now be an annual event.


David Ricardo said...

As a person whose background is similar to Mr. Dorf, an ethnically identifying but non-religious American Jew I have the opposite position of him with respect to Thanksgiving and Hannukah. I do understand and identify with Vegan’s revulsion of the slaughtering of turkeys for the traditional meal, but that is only one part of the holiday, and the holiday can be celebrated enjoyably without a turkey meal. In fact many of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes are Vegan, though not by design.

The attraction to persons with my background of Thanksgiving is the non-sectarian nature of the celebration. Of the three major American holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter only Thanksgiving is free from religious ceremony, celebration and the historical anti-Semitism association with the other two. The basic theme of Thanksgiving, showing appreciation for the harvest along with the family gathering, the watching or playing of football and the freedom from any secular services makes it a truly enjoyable day. Hopefully those who are Vegans can adapt to enjoy the day and we wish Mr. Dorf and his family a Happy Turkey Free celebration.

As for Hannukah, in many cases it represents all that is wrong with religion. Hannukah, as Mr. Dorf correctly documents, was a minor Jewish celebration. It has been co-opted by Jews and non-Jews alike, and made into a Jewish Christmas, with presents being the main attraction. Hannukah is an attempt by the Jewish religion to compete with Christmas, and of course it fails miserably and in doing so corrupts Judaism into a more materialistic religion than it is.

Christmas, given its wonderful classical music, its theme of brotherhood and its other attractive aspects can be enjoyed by non-Christians, who have to remove the overtly sectarian religious part from the holiday just as Vegans we hope can enjoy Thanksgiving if they can remove the offensive slaughter from the rest of the holiday.

Shag from Brookline said...

This convergence may have suggested the recent PBS radio feature (here in the Boston area on WBUR or WGBH) on whether turkey is Kosher. Apparently chicken is Kosher but turkey was not known of in the locale of the Old Testament when dietary laws were established. Personally, although I'm not Jewish, I would prefer Romanian Pastrami on rye with brown mustard and a couple slices half sours. I had this last week at Zaftig's with a side of slaw, all of which I was thankful for regardless of the convergence.

Howard Wasserman said...

What I find amusing about Chanukah coming so early this year is that towns that display a Menorah next to a Christmas tree (as required to avoid Establishment Clause problems) and put them up after sundown December 5 will be displaying the Menorah after the holiday is over. And they probably don't even realize it.

Joe said...

Both holidays have troublesome applications and aspects, but very well can be vegan and diversity friendly.

Thanksgiving obviously need not be about turkeys or even gluttony (football, othoh ...). It is ultimately a day of thanks and family. Days of thanksgiving historically also included as aspect of humility, a respect for the obligation to give thanks.

Hanukkah to my understanding was a celebration started when the Jews were able to rededicate (thus the etymology) their temple. The historical background is complicated, surely, but it is notable that Alexander conquered the area over a hundred years before.

It was the particular disrespect of the leadership that led to the revolt. Likewise, Romans made some real efforts to respect Jewish religious beliefs. Problems arose, however, when certain rulers did not honor that -- such as Pilate specifically angering the Jews.

So, Hanukkah can be honored as a recognition of the right to free exercise. The specific practices of the Maccabees notwithstanding.

Unknown said...

What's the big deal? You're willing to put personal convenience above the killing of billions of innocent lives in another context, so why not this one?

Paul.K said...

Apparently chicken is Kosher but turkey was not known of in the locale of the Old Testament when dietary laws were established. Personally, although I'm not Jewish, I would prefer Romanian Pastrami on rye with brown mustard and a couple slices half sours. I had this last week at Zaftig's with a side of slaw, all of which I was thankful for regardless of the convergence. FUT 14 Coins
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