Friday, November 26, 2004

Thanksgiving and the Jews

The first time I ever came across American Jews celebrating Thanksgiving was in my year off in Israel, in 1994. At the time, like many non-Americans, I found the religious overtones of the 'chag' overwhelming and was simply shocked at the idea that religious Jews would celebrate it.
Ten years on, I understand much better what Thanksgiving represents to most Americans, and last night even attended my very first Thanksgiving dinner, here in London (Canada, by the way, has its own thanksgiving; in all my years in Canada, I have no recollection of celebrating it at all). In that context, it is interesting to read that Thanksgiving was an occasion some American Jews actually fought to celebrate.
As American readers will know, it was only in 1863 that President Lincoln established Thanksgiving as an 'official' "day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father." According to the American Jewish Historical Society, in 1868 Governor John W. Geary of Pennsylvania issued a proclamation to the citizens of his state calling on them to celebrate Thanksgiving, ending with the words,
"Let us thank Him with Christian humility for health and prosperity"... and he called on Pennsylvanians to pray that "our paths through life may be directed by the example and instructions of the Redeemer, who died that we might enjoy the blessings which temporarily flow therefrom, and eternal life in the world to come."
This "roused a unified protest from Philadelphia’s rabbis because, in the words of America’s first English-language Jewish newspaper, The Occident, Geary "apparently intended to exclude Israelites" from the celebration...."
Philadelphia at the time had 4,000 Jews -- more than anywhere else -- and the city's rabbis, of all denominations, decided to protest with a 'powerful petition.' They declared that
"An [elected] official, chosen by a large constituency, as the guardian of inalienable rights, ought not to have evinced a spirit of exclusiveness. He should have remembered that the people he governs are not of one mind touching religious dogmas, and that by asking all to pray that ‘their paths through life may be directed by the example and instruction of the Redeemer’ . . . he casts reflections upon thousands, who hold a different creed from that which he avows...."
The rabbis condemned Geary’s proclamation as "an encroachment upon the immunities we are entitled to share with all the inhabitants thereof; and we appeal to the sense of justice which animates our fellow-citizens, that a conduct so unwarrantable may receive the rebuke it deserves, being universally stigmatized as an offence against liberty of conscience, unbecoming a public functionary, and derogatory to the honor of the noble state he represents."
Despite this outspoken rabbinical indictment, says the AJHS, "Geary did not revoke his proclamation, and Pennsylvania officially celebrated a Christianized Thanksgiving that year."
Not so, of course, today; the rabbis' request that government-dictated holidays should be secular in nature ultimately prevailed. Happy Thanksgiving!

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