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Nov. 21, 2023 - 8 kislev 5784

11/20/2023 02:29:41 PM


The long-proposed narrative of the Puritan/ Pilgrim origins of Thanksgiving in the early years of European settlement in North America has generally fallen into disrepute. Much has been omitted or suppressed about those early, tenuous efforts to eke out a living in the colder and more varied conditions of coastal New England. When the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira wrote Anything Goes, they opined:


“Times have changed

And we’ve often rewound the clock

Since the Puritans got a shock

When they landed on Plymouth Rock.

If today

Any shock they tried to stem

‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,

Plymouth Rock would land on them.”

The Puritans, motivated by their quest to live according to their stern, Calvinist ethic without government interference, fled England, and the established Church. They were refugees, seeking asylum. 

There was no recognized government in what has become the United States in the early 17th century. Yet there were clearly societies, peoples and very real lines of demarcation among the indigenous tribes. While the history I learned painted the Puritans and native tribes working well together, it is clear something happened that led to a massive death rate, general displacement, even violence between new arrivals and the long-established populations. 

That does not apply only  in New England—the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire—clearly, the even earlier immigration that produced Virginia—and the already century old parade of conquistadors who named their sphere New Spain, as well as French arrivals to the North whose linguistic heritage persists in places like Montreal, and the emergence of Acadians who descendants include the Creole-speakers of Louisiana and multiple Caribbean Islands, also found peoples inhabiting the land. History tells that in no place did things go well for the locals.

South African satirist Pieter Dirk-Uys, often performed cabaret on stage, including his declaration that ‘the problem is, the history keeps changing.’ As the United States continues its own self-examination in a period of sustained asylum seeking, growing desire to immigrate and self-expression as part of general society, I believe all Americans are challenged to rethink our attitudes toward the past. Mostly, that is significant in order to strengthen the present.

As a Jewish community, as an identifying Jew, that makes Thanksgiving a particular challenge. I do not have much identity with the Puritans—they would have expelled me. Although my ancestors arrived in mid-century of the 1800s, I am clearly not indigenous, but descended from immigrants, a select number of whose experiences and origins are well-documented. Others, the last to arrive, are less clear. Borders were open then. Health concerns aside, wealth, status and origin were not subject to inquiry.

Earlier arrivals—first documented for Jews in New Amsterdam (later New York, under British rule) in 1653, were clearly seeking refuge. A compact made with the Dutch West Indies Governor, Peter Stuyvesant, made clear that the identifiable population would be responsible for its own group’s social needs—a compact very much in play until recent years. Some of those first Jewish arrivals became the traders in a triangle trade involving commodities: molasses, tobacco, cotton and to my deep despair, and human cargo from Africa, sold against their will into slavery. Plymouth Rock on my head!

The twenty-first century has its own challenges, its own unresolved doubts about the enduring process of human migration that seems so intent on bringing masses of people to the limited number of areas that offer economic opportunity and personal ascendance. Europe, the USA, the limited number of sub-Saharan African democracies, areas of South Asia (some at best questionably democratic, but including India, Pakistan and Arabian Peninsula sheikdoms) attract massive numbers of refugees. Their motivation? Clearly economic for some, but so often tied to repression, disadvantage, threats to personal safety and unremitting corruption. Where is their Plymouth Rock to be?

Thanksgiving Day, proclaimed annually on the fourth Thursday in November, opening the mercantile season of holiday shopping, dedicated to multiple football games: is it the best we can do? The good is the time to share with family and friends, the generous feast we are privileged to partake of. 

From a religious perspective, placing God at the center, taking the spiritual part in this day of heritage, making the best for the future, each need a place at our Thanksgiving table. We have work to do Thursday…let it be in service to the sacred covenant that comes about through the coming Shabbat’s Torah portion (Vayeitzei), featuring prominently Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending.

How we live, what we do, like that dream is the central subject. Jacob concludes, “surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” Our task, in short is to bring the past into our future. Let us be thankful for the gifts of our lives, for our role in writing history for the future.

Eat well, live generously.

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784