Growing up in my extreme secular family, I learned to celebrate only one Jewish holiday -- Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving has all the themes of an important Jewish festival.
1. They tried to kill us.
2. We survived.
3. Let's eat.
In the case of the pilgrims, it was the harsh environment and ill preparation for life in the new world that tried to kill them. Close enough.
In my thirties, as I began to celebrate other Jewish holidays, I came to appreciate the special benediction that came before each festive meal, called a Kiddush, a sanctification of the day. Each holiday including the Sabbath has its own Kiddush. But there is no Kiddush for 'new' holiday of Thanksgiving.
Growing up, we had no special blessing for Thanksgiving. Like every other day of the week, we started eating as soon as the food hit the table. But a blessing elevates a routine (eating) to a ritual, an activity performed with mindfulness and intention. Having intention or kavanah, seems especially relevant on a holiday named for gratitude.
So when, Barbara and I began hosting Thanksgiving for our families, I struggled to find the right thing to say before we started eating. Some years, we read a poem. Other years, we just said the bread blessing in the Jewish tradition. None of these seemed wholly satisfying.
So a few years ago, I wrote a benediction for Thanksgiving. Modeled on the Sabbath Kiddush, it has a 'preamble' from American 'scripture' the words of Abraham Lincoln who proclaimed the first official Thanksgiving observance, followed by text that draws on the mythos of Thanksgiving, themes of gratitude and good fortune, and an understanding that only with love of friends and family is it possible to really savor our bounty. The benediction concludes with the traditional blessing for wine and bread, always found in abundance on our Thanksgiving table.
Perhaps you have something that you recite before the thanksgiving meal? If not, feel free to use this at your table this Thanksgiving. Or write your own that expresses your unique worldview that you can establish as a tradition in your family.
Benediction for Thanksgiving Day
From the Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863
The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.
The fourth Thursday in November.
In 1620, a small band of religious separatists arrived on this continent and with help from the indigenous people of the land, they survived. Emulating the biblical harvest festival, they celebrated with their new friends the way our species always has -- with food, companionship, and a nod toward the inexplicable mystery that allowed life to take hold and flourish at the edges of an unimaginably cold and vast galaxy.
Presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt codified the wisdom of tradition. Now, we, a ragtag bunch of immigrants and wanderers, gather, as Americans have for centuries, with the handful of those, who because of love or history or proximity, are precious to us among the billions of humanity. We rejoice in our abundance, remember our gratitude, and recognize how easily it could be otherwise.
Blessed are earth and sun, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and the way in which these simple elements have combined to create lives of meaning, purpose, and compassion.
Blessed are our families, friends, and homes.
Blessed are we to be together right now.
Blessed is the ineffable source of life, which creates the fruit of the vine and brings bread from the earth.
From my family to yours, this thanksgiving, B'tayavon, Bon Appetite!