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Much has been made of the coming once-in-a-lifetime “Thanksgivukkah” convergence, an apotheosis of Jewish assimilation complete with vile turkey-and-latke creations for all. Last time it happened—1888, I’m told—Hanukkah wasn’t even much of a thing, and it won’t happen again until the year 79,811. This of course means that it won’t ever happen again, because for however much I love America and love Jews, I don’t expect either to exist on such a timescale (and if you do, I suggest that you get over it). So if it’s your sort of thing, enjoy it: it’s the only Thanksgivukkah there will ever be.
I will not deny that the convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah serves my interests, narrowly speaking: That is to say, my mother will have no choice but to prepare a flavorful brisket instead of the ever-unpopular, but culturally perfunctory turkey. But beyond the alimentary upside, Thanksgivukkah does absolutely nothing for me. To put a finer point on it, this chimera of a holiday epitomizes much of what has always alienated me, a proud Jew and proud American, from the culture that is Jewish America. This season, I would rather celebrate the two concurrently than be dragged into the morass of cranberry sauce latkes, Hallmark bastardizations, and what I can’t help but imagine of Adam Sandler in pilgrim garb.
Thanksgiving, for whatever the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors actually did in 1621, has managed to grow from its colonial New England germ into one of America’s most splendid cultural institutions. It is ecumenical, ethically redeeming, civically healthy, and patently unconcerned with history. And if Christopher Hitchens and Jerry Falwell alike could celebrate it with gusto, it’s hard to imagine for whom this day of feel-good family feasting is beyond the pale. For me, the celebration of Thanksgiving is a sublime celebration of America-the-ideal, binding together all who eat turkey and give thanks as part of the openly fictive, essentially ethical kinship group that we call America. I very much like being part of this group, and Thanksgiving is a better expression of it than wearing yellow pants.
Now, I’ve no more patience than you, dear reader, for the turkey mobiles or the cringe-inducing attempts to conjure a singing holiday (a ditty I remember from my elementary school days: “Happy Thanksgiving, hooray, hooray, hooray! Aren’t you glad you’re not a turkey on this Thanksgiving Day?”) But it’s a reminder that to celebrate America is to grin and bear the tacky commercialism along with the Enlightenment goodness, even if it makes one want to chuck a pumpkin.
Hanukkah, which Christopher Hitchens hated, is an entirely different beast. At its core, it is an amoral celebration of national liberation, paid for in blood much dearer than turkeys’. Of course, if one is religious, the holiday (rather minor in religious terms) takes on some additional significance—I’ve heard of a miracle concerning some really slow-burning oil, molecularly altered by the classical Judeans’ concentrated faith, for instance.
But I am not so inclined, and I celebrate Hanukkah as I celebrate all Jewish things: a particularistic national festival (not that you’re not all invited!) of historical remembrance, meant to assert difference and independence, full of good, earnest song.
In short: the Maccabean rebels who kicked the Hellenistic Seleucids out of the Land of Israel were fanatical thugs, but they were my ancestors, and I owe my existence to them. Thus, latkes.
There is no meaningful way to square the circle. Thanksgiving is a holiday of ecumenical ideals, and Hanukkah a festival of bloody national liberation. In my book, the same goes for Americanism and Jewishness—two good things of entirely different kinds that are better left uncontaminated by each other. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy “Portnoy’s Complaint.” But it’s about time that we end the charade, a favorite of liberal rabbis, of Jewish values as Enlightenment values, Judaism as post-ethnic ideology, and NFTY/USY/The Federation as a tenable substitute for Hebrew culture. In view of the American tradition of four centuries and the Jewish tradition of three millennia, attempts to create a new synthesis—the Pittsburgh platform, the half-hearted Sunday school, the country club synagogue, the oversexed youth group—appear extremely feeble and colorless. Thanksgivukkah promises no better.
Such an admission frees me to hike America’s national parks, bask in fantastic individualism, wear pastels, and enjoy Kennebunkport without worrying like the neurotic number-crunchers at the American Jewish Yearbook about assimilation and intermarriage. One never forgets that he is Jewish when it’s a matter of language, blood, a land he knows like the palm of his hand, and a forest of black chest hair that leaves no doubt as to its provenance. Prop-Judaism, which seeks its roots in Thanksgivukkah, bagels and lox, and sleepaway camp hook-up stories, is doomed to fall out of consciousness—no matter the great moral aspirations of its engineers. If it’s trivial and tacky, no one will care.
As a demonstration of this principle, I’ll be doing something quite radical next week: celebrating Thanksgiving and Hanukkah separately, as everyone always has. I expect to come out of the experience recharged—a more devout American and a more devout Jew. Just not much of an American Jew.
Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @Josh_Lipson.
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