Thanksgiving, Interfaith Style

The Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving were pious Christians, giving thanks to a God they clearly thought of as a Christian God. But they were also thanking the great leader Massasoit and the Wampanoags who helped them to survive the first deadly winter in their new world. Theologians suspect the Pilgrims modeled their Thanksgiving after the harvest festival of Sukkoth in the Jewish Bible. We do know that the Pilgrims had fled Europe in order to gain religious freedom, and that they were inspired by the Jews fleeing Egypt. So while it was created by Christians, and the Wampanoags sat through church services as part of the celebration, Thanksgiving started out with pretty good interfaith credentials.

Nevertheless, many Jewish immigrants took a while to warm up to the idea that they could celebrate this American feast, and some ultra-Orthodox Jews still ignore it. My children have a picture book about a little girl in a tenement on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 20th century, who learns about Thanksgiving in her public school, and then has to use all of her Talmudic rhetorical skills to persuade a rabbinic court to let her celebrate it.

Yesterday, our community of interfaith families met to give thanks together. If you visit us on a Sunday morning, you might encounter any one of three different types of gatherings. Sometimes, we celebrate a Jewish holiday, sometimes, a Christian holiday. And some weeks, we celebrate a theme or value held in common by the two religions: social justice, service to community, joy, mystery, blessing new life, ecology, or in this case, gratitude.

Yesterday, we sang the Dutch Protestant hymn “We Gather Together” and our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, recounted how he used to sing this hymn in public school as a boy in Connecticut. As a rabbi who has spent his long career in a Jesuit context at Georgetown, Rabbi White is ideally suited to helping the Jewish partners in our community appreciate Christian prayers and songs: this one poses no challenge to Jewish theology.

Rabbi White also gave Christian partners and Jews raised without much religious education a Jewish context for Thanksgiving, mentioning the three harvest thanksgiving holidays in the Jewish calendar: Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkoth. He also read from a list of the daily Jewish prayers for thanks—for waking up, for the functioning of our digestive systems, for washing hands, eating, drinking, travelling. Then four community members got up to express gratitude: my teenage daughter read her own quirky list, giving thanks for photographs, sofas, foliage, musicals, and inclusivity. And our Reverend Julia Jarvis’s twin teenage daughters sang a Taylor Swift song, “The Best Day,” about a girl thanking her mother for love and support. All the moms were sniffling.

At the end of this gathering, we broadened out to include the numerous atheists and agnostics in our community, some of whom arrive on purpose at the tail end of the gathering, just in time for the more cerebral adult discussion group. This week, we concluded with a secular song that inspires  appreciation for both nature and humanity, whether or not one believes in a God:

What a Wonderful World

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

The colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shakin’ hands, sayin’ “How do you do?”
They’re really saying “I love you”

I hear babies cryin’, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

5 Replies to “Thanksgiving, Interfaith Style”

  1. Regarding the list of the daily Jewish prayers of thanks, let’s not forget “sheh-lo asani isha,” for not making me a woman (and therefore obligated to a lesser number of mitzvot than a man), or for Conservative Jews, “sheh-asani gaver,” for making me a man. (Conservative women say something else that’s appropriate to them, I forget what.) These are mandated — not that one shouldn’t add his or her own list of thanks — and shared by the (observant) community and therefore different in nature from thanks that are particular to individuals. This distinction is significant. Thanksgiving has a shared, established theme and is similarly a communal holiday rather than (just) an individual one.

    Note that Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are ordained in the Torah, the shelosh regalim, three temple-pilgrimage festivals.


  2. “We Gather Together” was one of my favorites, sung at Thanksgiving in a procession with candles and two-part harmony. I still like to hum it — the alto part!

    In my father’s public school, in Kearny, NJ, in the 1930s, the songs came, like many of his classmates, from Scotland. Their dialect might have posed a challenge to a boy whose first language was Yiddish; “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” is one he remembers in particular.

    Years later at my sort of non-denominational-but-vaguely-WASP prep school, our well-developed music program gloriously and indiscriminately covered centuries of beautiful church music that I am so happy to know. Our madrigal choir’s Christmas eve performance in the resonant Princeton University chapel was a highlight of my year and probably one of the reasons I (somewhat abashedly) revel in Christmas today, even though I still consider myself Jewish.

    All good music should be there for the taking: Bach, Mendelssohn, “Amazing Grace,” gospel… Heck, I used to think “Go Down, Moses” was a Jewish tune! When it comes to melody, I am emphatically ecumenical.

  3. How beautiful! Your lucky community. Also, I love the picture. As for me, I happily enjoy “Christian” music. Just because I am Jewish I am not going to stop listening to Bach or the Messiah etc.

  4. Charlotte–

    Yes, I am thankful for cultures and religions that encourage rather than forbid music in general. I can’t imagine life without music.

    Thank you for appreciating my acorn photo! I used to publish a lot of my photography in the era when we had a robust newspaper and magazine industry, sigh. Nowadays, I get a different thrill from uploading my photos–instantaneous gratification, and the luminous quality they have on the glowing screen. Anyway, it’s liberating to try to meet the challenge of creating photos for such abstract subjects…


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