At Thanksgivukkah, celebrate uniqueness of the separate holidays

NEW YORK (JTA) — Some folks are taking the rare confluence this year of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah to heart, renaming it Thanksgivukkah, redesigning their menus for the occasion (latkes topped with cranberry relish anyone?) and refashioning ritual objects (a turkey-shaped hanukkiyah called the Menurkey is gaining traction on Kickstarter).

Others are taking it one step deeper, celebrating how the combined holidays enable us to fully appreciate being both Jewish and American. It’s a perfect symbiosis: As we freely celebrate Hanukkah this year, we recognize that we directly benefit from the freedoms that were at the core of what brought the Puritans and Pilgrims to settle a new land.

But Jewish tradition doesn’t love conflating holidays. In fact, there’s a concept — “ein mearvin simcha b’simcha” — that we shouldn’t mix one happy occasion with another. No weddings during Sukkot or Passover, or any Jewish holiday, for that matter.

At first glance it seems like a downer. Shouldn’t doubling up on our celebration just enhance our enjoyment and be a net gain?

For those of us with birthdays on Rosh Hashanah or New Year’s Day, we know that conflating celebrations doesn’t really work — one celebration usually gets lost into the other. Keeping celebrations separate enables us to be fully present for each.

So instead of conflating Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, let’s look at it another way: How can the unique aspects of each holiday help us more fully celebrate the other?

Thanksgiving teaches us to give thanks for the harvest and for all we have without the need to acquire more. How can that concept inform our celebration of Hanukkah, a holiday that has become overrun with gift giving that verges on the excessive?

Instead of being thankful for the plenty that so many of us experience — we mostly take the most basic things for granted, like waking up in a dry, warm bed each morning — we want more, and on Hanukkah we watch children tear through gifts wondering what else awaits them each night of the Festival of Lights.

Parents can help children appreciate that mom and dad’s presence in their lives can be present enough by giving the gift of time to their kids at Hanukkah. So often we are distracted by everything we must do in life — I have been shamed by my son asking me to stand “still as a statue” as he tries to get my attention or by my daughter saying “Ima, just listen to me.”

Pick a night of Hanukkah and give your child a period of your undivided attention. Friends and significant others can also give each other the gift of an evening unplugged. Go out with your friends or spouses unmediated by a screen of any kind.

For your children, help them cultivate a sense of gratitude and the plenty in their own lives. On one night of Hanukkah, ask your kids to recycle some of their own toys and gift them to others. On another night, they can give some money or time to charity.

We don’t need more things, we need to appreciate the people who fill our lives with meaning and the power we have to help others.

What lessons can Hanukkah provide in our celebration of Thanksgiving?

For starters, it can teach us not to shy away from ritual. Significant Jewish occasions are ritualized, from lighting the hanukkiyah to recounting the Exodus story on Passover, to a Shabbat meal replete with blessings over candles, grape juice and wine. The rituals help to connect us to Jewish time and to the drama of Jewish history. They transport us from the realm of the ordinary into the realm of the sacred. They enable us to slow down and pay attention to the experiences that are unfolding before us.

While each family may have its own rituals on Thanksgiving — the football game or carving of the turkey — many of us feel self-conscious about rituals that enter the sphere of the sacred, like inviting guests to share what they are grateful for or chanting a blessing to thank God for the food we are about to eat. It amazes me how much time, effort and money is put into preparing a lavish Thanksgiving meal, and the invited guests just dig in and then complain about overeating.

Invite everyone to pause before eating and say one thing for which they are grateful — from the food, the chef or the One who makes it all possible. Connect your feelings of gratitude to the company that surrounds you or for what it means for you to be an American today. Make this sharing circle or some other activity you create as a group a ritualized part of what you do each Thanksgiving.

Hanukkah can also teach Thanksgiving a thing or two about being different. Whereas Thanksgiving sends us a powerful message about intergroup relations and the coming together of the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians for a fall harvest feast, Hanukkah celebrates what sets us apart and makes us different.

Hanukkah honors the Maccabean revolt to safeguard practices unique to Jewish people (like Shabbat, holiday celebration and circumcision). The strong impulse to develop our unique and particular identities is an important first stage to pass through before coming together with others and celebrate multiculturalism. We need to know who we are first before we can share that with others. And while I love Thanksgiving because it is a holiday celebrated by so many Americans, with common foods and customs, let’s celebrate what makes our families different and unique.

What is particular about your family that you would like your kids to learn about this Thanksgiving? Stories of resilience or bravery? Others? This Thanksgiving, encourage those gathered around the table to share the particular legacy they would like to leave to their children and grandchildren.

Ein mearvin simcha b’simcha suggests that we shouldn’t mix our celebrations. But when the calendar leaves us no other choice, let’s do so with integrity. Let each holiday’s central values — being thankful for what we already have, celebrating ritual that connects us to that which is sacred and rejoicing in our differences — inform how we experience both festivals this fall.

(Dasee Berkowitz is a contributing writer to JTA.)