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Thanksgiving

            Thanksgiving, my birthday, and Ellie’s birthday, all happen around the same time of year, and I’m not sure I’m ready for any of it. I’m not a huge fan of birthdays, especially my own (I keep getting older, even when I’m absolutely sure I pressed the pause button), but also, Ellie will be seven this year and I think that has to be wrong. I think we should count the age of rescue dogs from the date they were rescued, instead of from their actual birth dates. In that case, Ellie would be about two and a half years old, and that sounds much more accurate to me.

“I’m a puppy!”

            And then there’s Thanksgiving. While the idea of a holiday devoted to giving thanks for our good fortune is lovely, it’s hard to look past the origin of the holiday with the Pilgrims taking advantage of the indigenous population of America. As a kid I just drew hand-shaped turkeys and sat through drama-filled family dinners, blissfully unaware of the back story or even the gratitude theme of the holiday. But I’m not sure what to do with it now that I know more.

It’s hard to focus on gratitude when you are busy feeling guilty and ashamed of what your ancestors did to the ancestors of your friends. I much prefer the Jewish holiday of Passover, where we can focus with righteous indignation on the wrongs done to us instead of the wrongs we’ve done to others. Sometimes I try to separate myself out as a more recent immigrant to America (my ancestors started to arrive around the turn of the twentieth century), so maybe I don’t have to own the guilt of those earlier European immigrants to this land. But then I read something like Deborah Fineblum’s article, The attitude of gratitude: Jewish connections to share at the Thanksgiving table published on Jewishworldnews.org, and I find out that the Pilgrims actually modeled their autumn thanksgiving holiday after the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, celebrated just a few weeks earlier, and I feel implicated all over again. The fact is, we are all related in one way or another, and we all come from the predators and the victims at some point in our histories.

So the question is, how can we focus on our gratitude for the good things in our lives, without ignoring the things we’ve done wrong, or things that have been done to hurt us? I’ve had to work hard on this one. I was deeply depressed for a large portion of my life, and found it insulting and simplistic when people tried to tell me to focus on my good fortune instead. They seemed to believe that if I could just whitewash my own history and ignore the pain, the way they were doing in their own lives, I would be happy. But it doesn’t work that way. In reality, telling people to smile when they are depressed, or angry, or sad, or frustrated, is DISRESPECTFUL, because you are not offering them kindness, you are bullying them into smiling in order to make you feel better. My smile has to be my choice, my willing gift to you, or else it’s meaningless.

“Harrumph.”

            So, again, given all of the pain of the past, and the pain of this year in particular, with the numbers of Covid deaths rising precipitously in the United States and around the world, is there any healthy way to celebrate Thanksgiving and express gratitude around a table (or a zoom), with our friends and families? Is it healing to talk about gratitude when we’re still hurting so much?

            My answer is: maybe; if we are careful and kind with each other. I wrote about Thank you, but blessings last year, as part of my first blessings writing workshop at my synagogue. The idea is that saying thank you by rote, because it’s what is expected of you, can be not only meaningless but also self-destructive, but if I can acknowledge both my gratitude and my pain, out loud, maybe I can actually feel the gratitude more fully.

            The number one Thank you, but blessing among my students this year was, Thank you God for knowing that I am still a good Jew even thought I eat bacon.

“Bacon!”

            Ellie’s favorite is, Thank you for giving me chicken, but I want more.

“Did you say chicken?”

            And mine: Thank you for my good fortune in having a Mom who loves and believes in me, and a job I love, but I wish I could have more energy, and more focus, so that I could lose weight, and finish two or three novels over winter break.

            I am grateful that Joe Biden won the election, but I wish that half the country didn’t have to feel so left out after each election. I wish we could all find a way to agree on the facts and then listen to each other’s experience of those facts with more compassion.

            I think that these Thank you, but blessings are a way that I can make gratitude possible, and meaningful, for myself. Because if I just said that I am grateful, it would feel hollow and even untrue, but within the context of the all of it, my gratitude is real and I can celebrate it.

            I hope that Thank you, but blessings are helpful to other people, but if nothing else works, I suggest skipping the turkey on Thanksgiving and going straight to the ice cream/chocolate cake/chocolate frosting part of the meal. That’s bound to make things better, at least for a little while.

“We have room for dessert, Mommy. Stretching helps.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

102 responses »

  1. There’s almost always something to be thankful for. Today I’m thankful for some rain.

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  2. I’m with you. Count your blessings and go straight to the ice cream!

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  3. Thank you always for your posts, “but nothing”. You are so gifted and eloquent. I look forward to “reading you” always.

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  4. yarncraftsbymary

    My older son shares your birthday. But he’s a few years older. He was 9lbs 8ounces, three weeks overdue and it took a c-section to get him out. That Thanksgiving was spent in an Air Force hospital in Georgia eating celery soup. Happy Birthday! Even if it isn’t perfect, both of you are a gift from God! ♥️

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  5. yarncraftsbymary

    Happy Birthday to Miss Ellie!

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  6. It’s a mixed bag of a holiday for sure. I am thankful I will get to see my daughter finally (we’ve been extra careful in preparation). Good wishes on your birthday 💗

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  7. Another simply wonderful post, Rachel, bringing up so many things that bother me and still finding ways to inject humor and hope into your thread. I love the students’ thanks for God’s understanding of him/her eating bacon! Your students understand what God is truly about, and it’s not pettiness.

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  8. Thank you, but… Seems like a good way to start to cope with the complex. I also struggle with the history of the USA. I thought I was savvy, but this year has really opened my eyes, and my mind. I think one of mine would be Thank you for opening my eyes and mind, but help me to find a way to participate in reconciliation and moving into a fair and just future for all.

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  9. Always a lovely post, Rachel! Thank you! Shavua tov! 🙂

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  10. Love the ideas of « thank you, but….. » and, of course, skipping the turkey and going straight to dessert.

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  11. This is a lovely post.

    Thanksgiving is a mixed bag for me too, history-wise. On my mother’s mother’s mother’s side of the family, I am a tenth generation descendent of a Pilgrim couple that arrived in Plymouth Colony on the ship Anne in 1623, three years after the Mayflower. On my mother’s father’s mother’s side of the family I am descended from a Cherokee Native American, according to the story that my great-grandmother told me. And on my father’s father’s mother’s side of the family, I am descended from a Nigerian African slave.

    Add all of that to this CrAzY year, and I think I will start, and end, my Thanksgiving dinner with chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. And some ICE CREAM!!!

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  12. I spent a lot of today thinking about being thankful. The motivation has nothing to do with thanksgiving because we do not celebrate that tradition here. I would like to. I think a reconcilliation day would make a good thanksgiving here in Australia.

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    • Setting aside special days for giving thanks is brilliant, because it’s so much easier to do these things together than alone. And rewarding that thanksgiving work with yummy food always helps!

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  13. Very profound. Touching. So glad to have people like you who feel d distress of others from d bottom of their hearts. May your tribe increase.

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  14. Your point is thoughtful – and honest – but I’ve been taught that Thanksgiving was a meal shared by both the English people and the native American ones together, so I look at it as a way that two diverse people could “meet in the middle” to celebrate the blessing they DO have, not focus on what they DO NOT have. In this crazy year, it seems easier to be thankful for things like having been free (so far) of contracting a possibly fatal virus, grateful that those I hold dear have also not been struck with said virus. I worry often about the homeless, but that makes me appreciate all the more the roof over my head and a thermostat. I do what I can to donate to the local food bank on a regular basis, and that allows me to be thankful that hungry people have a place to go to get food and thankful that I am contributing to feeding them. Rachel, we can’t change history and we can’t carry the guilt for those who have taken advantage of other people. But we can be thankful that our heart and our being are the kind of spirits that would never choose to take advantage of anyone.

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  15. A lovely post – mixed blessings indeed. I was brainwashed as an American child to believe Thanksgiving was a new beginning for people who were seeking freedom instead of the beginning of a gencide in order to make room for these people. We’ve all been lied to, history is one big lie concocted by the victors of whatever people they defeated. But there is little we can do about it except, as you say, be kind to one another and to give thanks that there is still goodness in this world, and to truly cling to the hope that love really does conquer all.

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  16. Thanksgiving is the time to feel gratitude for what we have, being generous to those who have less, while acknowledging our shortcomings.

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  17. Oh yes, Ellie is certifiably two – and a bit.

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  18. I really like the idea of your I’m thankful for but… My husband taught me that “but” negates what comes before it, so we always try to use “and”. Such as “I love you very much and I wish you would pick up your dirty clothes.” Anyhow, I feel that we can do nothing about what our ancestors did or didn’t do, so our only option is to go forward doing no more harm and trying to make the world a better place for those whose lives we touch.
    Have a good Thanksgiving and a happy birthday – and Ellie too, whether she is 3 or 7.
    Amy, Lucy and Xena

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  19. We don’t have Thanksgiving in England. But I always love my birthday, (in March) even though I have now had far too many of them. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  20. Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Paused Birthday, Rachel. Despite the current world problems, there is still a lot to be thankful for. It seems everyone except the 74,000,000 who voted for #45 are happy. I wish there was a way that their minds could be put at ease, but 75% of them still believe #45’s divisive words that the election was stolen from him. If it was stolen, why did the Dems lose seats in Congress and not gain the Senate majority. In fact, the majority only voted against #45, with his alternative facts and divisive policies. And now, he is wreaking his revenge on America, while doing nothing for the American citizens. So sad. We all need to be kinder, more thoughtful and more understanding and I hope #46 is able to start that process. Fingers crossed. Allan

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  21. Rachel, best wishes on your birthday and this Thanksgiving. You gave specific answer to a question about being thankful in a time of great struggle and even grief for more than some – you noted it is OK to be thankful, “if we are careful and kind with each other.” That should be a mantra to live by.

    For example, we can disagree with people if we are careful and kind with each other. Disagreeing need not mean being disagreeable. As for Thanksgiving, we can be thankful, as long as we remember people have suffered and even lost. You reminded me of a phrase I have used during a pre-meal prayer – let’s take a moment to think good thoughts for those who could not be here or are no longer with us. I will definitely use that again, if asked.

    Keith

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  22. I hope you have a good Thanksgiving day, when it arrives. I’ll be having it not solely but simply. Your writing about “thank you, but” is sound. We shouldn’t force a smile on the holiday (or any day) any more than we should force ourselves to eat or talk. We should also be aware of both perpetration and of victimhood. It’s not a fun reality, but then reality isn’t. There is much goodness, though, and things to hope for. We can say thanks for all we have and (but) sorry for what it might have cost other people, and thank you that we can do better ourselves in the present. Which doesn’t have to be a pledge for a crusade but a promise to look for opportunities to improve the world within our part of it.

    Great work, thanks. (No “but.”)

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  23. Happy Birthday Rachel and thank you for blessing us each week with your insightful and moving writing. Happy Pup day Ellie and thank you for bringing more canine cuteness into this world. I truly hope you and your Mom have a lovely Thanksgiving.

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  24. It is a weird year to celebrate something like “THANKSgiving”, but one thing we can all be thankful for (some more than others of course) is that we’ve survived. The guilt about the indigenous people exploitation used to bother me and I still think it is shameful, but it was no basket of roses for the ‘exploiters’ either. Many were criminals or indentured servants, banished to the “New World” because England or other countries didn’t want them around any more. Some came to escape religious persecution. They timed their arrival rather poorly too, coming when it was getting onto winter and most of them probably with no clue how to ‘live off the land’. In situations like that, the worst comes out in people and survival is foremost on their minds, not compassion nor equality. I do feel regret (a little bit) for what the Indians (sorry, politically incorrect I know) or First People or whatever the title is today suffered. “Whitey” didn’t do them any favors. The point is, for us, to learn and grow and NOT REPEAT the bad behavior. Have we learnt that lesson? I doubt it. And the wheel turns, often enough now white people are cast as the villains and the persecution comes back on them. Maybe it’s deserved and maybe not…I personally have never done anything ‘bad’ to a person of another color, whatever that might be, nor of another religion either. Hopefully this horrible year we’ve all grown more compassionate and giving, but I’m not seeing it. Thanksgiving will be (like the rest of the days) just one more to get through.

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    • Over and over again we learn that we need to have love before we can give love. When we feel weak and scared it’s hard to feel compassion for someone else’s pain. The hope is that when we feel safe and well we can share that with others.

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  25. Good post Rachel. Our anniversary and my birthday are within days of each other. We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here in the UK, but I am grateful for a lot of things.
    Kizzy was a rescue and I had her for 5 years, so half her life as she was 10 when I lost her in 1990. We had Barney (1995-2005) and Maggie (2005-2020) from 7 week old pups so for the past 25 years have had a dog in our lives. They are a blessing. We miss them all.

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  26. I like to think of Thanksgiving as a time to celebrate my family, and I can do that even over Zoom. We have so much fun together on this day, cooking, drinking good wine, watching the national dog show, even cleaning up and packaging leftovers. (No football for us). This year I will be able to celebrate that our family is still all here, and even includes a new member, baby Raymond aka Ray of Sunshine. And we plan to keep it that way by not being together but staying safe at home. I also think of Thanksgiving as a time of personal reflection and a chance to thank people who have made a difference for me. We go around the table and share those thoughts and they are sometimes tear-inducing. My family is very politically aware and involved, and we spend so much time thinking about the wrongs of this world that on this one day we try to see the brighter side of life. I’m sure Ellie and Cricket would approve! Happy birthday to both you and your fur baby, Rachel. Your blog is one of the things I am grateful for this year 😉

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  27. Happy Birthday. Life keeps improving the older we get. I know no one ever says that, so I wanted you to know that from my perspective at 73. As for the history of this and every other country–humans have been fighting since the beginning. And being deceitful. And screwing up. One of the reasons I love the Bible is that the people are so very familiar. Brother killing brother and denying culpability(who me?), a man wanting another wife, a man using another woman because he is so danged determined to have a baby,etc. etc. But that underarching total love of God always there. For that I am indeed very very thankful.

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  28. I do like the idea of the Thank you but blessings workshop. That would be useful for me when people say how great it must be to lock down in the wonderful countryside. Thank you but I miss the city, I want to visit my friends, go to the Art Gallery, a bookshop, see the variety of people and lifestyles in the city.
    Thank you for this thoughtful post Rachel and Happy Birthday to you.

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  29. The paradigms we fall into are amazing. The assumption that our bodies and brains are all exactly alike, or the mythology that anything can be achieved via willpower. Just diet and exercise, and you’ll lose weight! Study hard and work hard, and you’ll succeed.

    Oh, if it was all so simple. What goes on in my mind exhausts me. And of course, what’s seen on the outside isn’t what’s happening within, right?

    Right. You already know all of this. I sympathize with your plight and appreciate your efforts to celebrate your gratitude. I also agree, I am pleased Joe Biden won the election. I think it’s a step forward. If only we could all listen better and agree with facts and conclusions, and work together.

    I share your ambivalence about Thanksgiving, too. I’ve had so many wonderful Thanksgiving but as I’ve matured and learned more about the truth…well…sigh.

    Early wishes for a joyful, happy birthday to you and Ellie. Cheers

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  30. Happy Birthday, Rachel! Happy Birthday, Ellie! And Happy Thanksgiving (even if you do prefer the ice cream to the turkey)! ❤ ❤ ❤

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  31. Though one can still wish you a happy birthday, right? And I do, from my heart 🙂

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  32. A beautiful and thought provoking post once again, Rachel. We don’t have thanksgiving here in the UK but that doesn’t mean we don’t have those dichotomies or a lot of historical guilt. I love your idea of thank you but – it encourages and hopefully creates further discussion and contemplation.

    Dessert first – oh yes. 🙂

    Oh and Happy Birthday for you and for lovely Ellie.

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  33. Beautiful words..this is first time I have read about gratitude and pain so clearly. It is difficult to think to these depths, analyse them and in the end provide the reader with a new perspective! Amazing! I try to keep up with all of your blogs and really love reading them. Thank you!

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  34. Have a wonderful birthday when it arrives. We will be celebrating my mom’s 80th birthday on that day as well, and my great niece is doing the cooking for our small gathering. Tiny, but happy enough.

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  35. Happy birthday Rachel and Ellie ! Have a nice day and stay safe.

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  36. Sometimes you make my head spin, Rachel. I choose to do my apologies at Yom Kippur and free myself from guilt for another year. No way can I believe that the Pilgrims modeled Thanksgiving after Sukkot as even if they know about Judaism, they hated us. Dogs age absolutely should be counted from Gotcha, not birth. Thanks for blogging. I enjoy you.

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  37. This was an interesting post for me. I have a lot to be thankful for this year, and I am thankful, but I haven’t really been feeling thankful or feeling a sense of gratitude, if I am honest.

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  38. You put it so well. Thank you.

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  39. There have been studies showing one of the most important components of happiness, if not the most important, is reminding ourselves to be grateful. It grounds us.

    “Mindfulness” is the big wellness buzzword lately, and I’d argue being grateful is a part of that too, a way to take a step back and appreciate instead of always thinking of the next thing. Any holiday that encourages us to be grateful is a good thing.

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  40. 👸🐩🎂🎁🎈🦃🍗🍨🍧🍦🎉🎊

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  41. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your loved ones.

    “The heart that gives thanks is a happy one, for we cannot feel thankful and unhappy at the same time.” — Douglas Wood

    Reply

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