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