Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thanksgivukkah: What Makes This Night Different From All Other Nights?

 In case you’ve tuned out Facebook, Stephen Colbert, and all the Jewish and mainstream press for the last six months and so hadn’t heard: the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving this year. Jewish entrepreneurs are printing t-shirts and crafting turkey shaped Hanukkah menorahs (“Menurkeys”). Bloggers and publicists alike are creating new names for this phenomenon: Thanksgivukkah. Thanukkah. Hanukkagiving. That’s because…

…This is a highly unusual phenomenon. Depending on who you ask and how carefully you read, Thanksgiving coinciding with the first day of Hanukkah is a once-in-eternity occurrence; or it will happen again, but not for over 70,000years; or it hasn’t happened for about 125 years and won’t happen again foranother 150 years.

By the way, if you’re thinking, “Wait! The first day of Hanukkah on Thanksgiving means we’ll light the first candle the night before Thanksgiving,” you’re right. According to Jewish practice, days begin at sunset, so we’ll light the first candle Wednesday evening as we begin prepping all the make-ahead parts of the Thanksgivukkah feast, or shlepping to our out-of-state destinations, and the second candle on Thursday night, over the ravaged remains of the fried turkey—or tofurkey, or turkey latkes, or whatever.

And that’s before we expand the calendrical search to years when the first night of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving (placing the first day of Hanukkah on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a somewhat more frequent occurrence).  In any case, it’s still a highly unusual phenomenon, and kind of cool.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is the way in which this overlap is highlighting some common themes that run through the two holidays—and always have (always since the invention of Thanksgiving, anyway)—whether or not they overlap.

Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates survival, and religious freedom. Say what we will about the Puritan Pilgrims and their behavior toward the Native Americans, we cannot deny that they sought and found religious freedom in the New World, nor that, notwithstanding a few setbacks along the way, the nation their descendants, and others, later founded has been a place of unparalleled religious freedoms for Jews.

And then there’s this business of giving: giving thanks, giving gifts.  Thanukkah, Hanukkah: we don’t need our festival to coincide with Thanksgiving to make these connections.

“Hanukkah,” after all, is the Hebrew word for “dedication,” as in the re-dedication of the Temple after its desecration by the Syrian-Greeks in the 2nd century B.C.E., and that re-dedication, after years of punishing occupation and war, would have required the mustering of every gift at the Jewish people’s disposal. How thankful do we imagine our ancient ancestors felt on this occasion?

The giving of Hanukkah gelt, a Yiddish term for “coins” or “money,” especially to children, is a tradition whose origins are lost to history. Some say it’s related to the Hasmoneans’ newly won right to strike their own national coins following their victory. Others trace it back to the Talmudic dictum that every Jewish household must light Hanukkah candles all eight nights, even if they must take up a collection in order to do so. And so on. Today we enjoy foil-wrapped chocolate “gelt” on Hanukkah, and many families have made it a Hanukkah custom to give tzedakah, sometimes to a different recipient for each of the eight nights.

On Hanukkah, we give thanks for our survival (so far!) as a people and a tradition in the face of repeated attempts to destroy us and our faith. We give thanks for the prosperity and freedom we enjoy today. We give, as much as we can, to those less fortunate than ourselves. Not just this year, when Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving, but every year.

Happy Hanukkah. And pass the cranberry chutney. (Try it on the latkes. Trust me.)