Dear TEE Community,
First of all I want to express my pleasure and my pride at the large number of you who showed up for the Transgender Day of Remembrance Interfaith Service last Saturday afternoon. When I tell people how wonderful the congregation is, one of the first things I mention is how truly welcoming and caring you are and how much our members strive to know each other as individuals. The fact that a growing number of Transgender people have found their way to our community is a testament to the sincere and kind welcome they have received, for which I am grateful.
And speaking of gratitude… Our service this Thanksgiving Shabbat will focus on hakarat hatov, recognizing the good in our lives and the world around us. The national institutionalization of Thanksgiving in 1863 came at a time when our country was sorely divided. President Abraham Lincoln asked that it serve as a vehicle “to heal the wounds of the nation,” a message which is, sadly, relevant today as well. By acknowledging the good in others as well as ourselves, especially those with whom we disagree, we do the spiritual work necessary for that healing.
Underlying the observance of Thanksgiving, however, is an enormous wound that we, as a nation, have barely begun to acknowledge, let alone repair. That is the conquest and genocide of the Indigenous nations displaced by the European colonists and their descendants who eventually created the United States. The Wampanoag people of New England, who shared the expertise and resources that allowed early English settlers to survive, were later nearly decimated by those settlers.
At the same time, for many American Jews, especially immigrants, Thanksgiving was a holiday which affirmed our sense of belonging. For my father’s family, it was a time all the scattered relatives came together and it served as an annual reunion. Like the Seder, my mother, grandmothers, and aunts all cooked and each had their specialty. I have wonderful memories of crowded, noisy gatherings full of laughter.
So how do we reconcile our knowledge of what Thanksgiving represents to Native people with our positive connections to the holiday? For some people, especially American Indians, there is no way to do that and they choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving at all, which is completely understandable. But for most of us, a realistic approach is to adjust some of our Thanksgiving practices.
In good Jewish tradition, I would suggest that the first step is learning. Many of us were taught an incomplete version of American history. Educating ourselves about that history from a Native perspective is an important corrective. A good place to start is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. For a beginning acquaintance with the nations on whose land Western New Yorkers currently live, the National Museum of the American Indian has produced a Haudenosaunee Guide: https://americanindian.si.edu/sites/1/files/pdf/education/HaudenosauneeGuide.pdf
Next, we can shift the focus of our observance from discussing a mythical event (“The First Thanksgiving”) and reframe the holiday as a time for us to come together to express gratitude. As part of our gathering, we can acknowledge the original inhabitants of the places we live. The website https://native-land.ca/ can help you learn which nations are indigenous to a specific area. You may wish to read from a text known as the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, an ancient prayer used daily as well as to open and close confederation gatherings (https://americanindian.si.edu/environment/pdf/01_02_Thanksgiving_Address.pdf).
Giving tzedakah is another, essential way that Jews express their commitment and concern. The COVID pandemic has had a devastating impact on already impoverished and under resourced Native American communities. Native infection rates are 2.2 higher than those of white Americans and their death rates are 4 times higher. Donating to Native directed funds is one way we can address this. One organization with which I am familiar is the Navajo and Hopi Families Relief Fund (https://navajohopisolidarity.org/).
Finally, the food focus of Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity to consider the Native (and native) sources of the items we see as traditional – turkey, potatoes, corn, and cranberries are all from the Americas, as well as wild rice, pumpkin and other squashes, dried beans, tomatoes, and avocados, among others. Planning a meal around native and local foods is good for the environment and our health, as well a way to honor the original inhabitants of our country (https://indigenousvalues.org/contributions/native-american-foods-medicines/).
I hope that however you observe Thanksgiving, the holiday leaves you with a greater sense of connection to the land where we live and gratitude for its abundance.
Rabbi Drorah Setel