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Judi' Journal 11-18-2011

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Thanksgiving message

By Judi Siegal

Fall. It’s my favorite time of the year. It brings out the Yankee in me. It has me decorating my home with pumpkins, leaves, mums and all manner of harvest motifs. It has me baking pumpkin bread, cooking up cranberry sauce and hunting up my favorite apple pie recipe. It causes me to hum “We Gather Together” and “Over the River and Through the Woods.” And yes, that cool air we get around this time in Florida is fine with me; my windows are open to the full blast of that delicious air. Thanksgiving is just around the corner and I couldn’t be happier.
If we look at the Thanksgiving story from a historical perspective, there are many things that Jews and the Pilgrims share. This could be why I like Thanksgiving; it lets me be part of the American culture while retaining my Jewish heritage.
The Pilgrims were great Bible readers. They were influenced by its messages and moral teachings. Now, this sounds very much like the Jewish take on the Torah. For Jews, the Torah is the guiding force in their lives as was the Bible for the Pilgrims.
While in England, the Pilgrims were persecuted for their religious beliefs. Jews can certainly relate to this aspect for we have been the objects of persecution for centuries. It should be noted that while Jews have always worked for the rights of others, when the Pilgrims and other Christian groups came to America, they did not always give full rights to those who were not of their faith. Fortunately this changed as time went on.
The Pilgrims came here seeking freedom to live and worship as they pleased. The Jews came here for the same reasons. In the shtetls of Europe they were subject to conscription by the Russian army or prejudiced against in government or in business. In the New World they could be free from the Inquisition and practice Judaism openly.
Both the Pilgrims and the Jews viewed America as the Promised Land. Here both groups could obtain the opportunities denied them under the old reigns in Europe. Here they could start fresh and plot their own destinies.
When the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts, they built their own little communities and houses of worship. So, too, did the Jews. Living as a community is a very integral part of Judaism. Rituals and prayers are done as a group and certain prayers can only be done in the presence of a minyan, a religious quorum of 10 Jews. Building communities and establishing houses of worship are important goals for any group. The white clapboard Congregational church is a ubiquitous sight throughout the center greens in New England towns. Jewish synagogues especially in the major cities where most Jews settled are testaments to the permanency these people wished to convey.
Lastly, Thanksgiving expresses one of the most Jewish of sentiments, that of gratefulness. The whole concept of giving thanks is one that observant Jews do from the moment of arising in the morning. Throughout the day there are additional opportunities to say thank you to God for God’s many blessings. These are uttered over bread, food, special occasions and the like. The Pilgrims’ gratitude was born of a desire to survive in a hostile and harsh environment. They were grateful to be alive, those that had survived, and this gratefulness gave them courage to persevere.
Whether we are Jews or Christians, another religion or none at all, we can all relate to the Pilgrims and their journey to the New World. Their story is a universal story of the right to be free and worship or not as one sees fit. It is everybody’s story of being grateful for the basics of life: home, food and family. It is everybody’s human need to say thank you and to take stock of the things for which there are no price tags: health, life and love.
As for me, I used to remind my children that we Jews have deep roots in America. After all, I would say jokingly, their dad’s relatives, the Siegals, (seagulls) came over with the Mayflower.
Happy Thanksgiving!
Judi is a former teacher and Jewish educator.  She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil.