Friday, November 20, 2009

Giving Thanks (Or: Ode to Tofurky)

Ahhh....Thanksgiving.  One of my favorite holidays.  Richly meaningful.  And richly delicious.
I've written in the past about the seasonal trauma that Thanksgiving sometimes wreaks on students returning home for the holiday (and their parents).  If you're a parent or student in that situation, re-read my post here.

As for the culinary delights of the holiday, what do you like to eat?  I'm a huge fan of mashed potatoes.  Check out the Food Network's List of 50 Mashed Potato recipes.  I'm going to try out the Sweet Potato-Apple one later this weekend....(Yes, my wife is a little skeptical.)

For the vegetarians and flexitarians among us, how about a shout out to extol the virtues of Tofurky!  You can roll your eyes all you want.  I love it. 

 But even I have my limits:

Of course there's so much more to the holiday than just the food!  There's all the drama associated with Thanksgiving travel.  If you've ever been hit with holiday travel stress, then "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" is worth watching again!

As far as other Thanksgiving themes are concerned: this week's Torah portion (Parshat Toldot) tells the story of the dysfunctional relationship between twin brothers Jacob and Esau.  It's perfect timing for any of us who have struggled with our own  family relationships, which sometimes come to a boil around the holidays.  Check this out for some tips on avoiding a full family meltdown.  Better yet: embrace your family's wackiness by laughing about it.  What better way to do that than by also laughing at other's people's families (like the ones in the movies)!  (I'm a fan of "The Family Stone" - ok, it's a Christmas movie, and not a Thanksgiving one, but the family dynamics are the same!)  Check out clips from the movie here.

All of that aside, there are some serious issues that are worthy of our consideration on this Thanksgiving.


Given that the Dept of Agriculture announced this week that the US was facing its highest rate of food insecurity (number of families that struggle to put food on the table) since such surveys began in 1995, we should be acutely aware, during this holiday season, of those around us who are in need.  This is some very tangible evidence (of data collected months ago) of the toll that the economic crisis is taking on families.  Perhaps your families have been hit hard during the last year as well.  (Click here for the San Diego Jewish community's response to the crisis.)

With the economic crisis in mind, we have this interesting Jewish paradox when it comes to Thanksgiving.  On the one hand, our tradition insists that we temper our joy and celebration, when we realize that there are others around us who suffer.  (This is best encapsulated by the famous rabbinic midrash that has God chastising the angels for joyously celebrating in heaven after the Israelites miraculously escaped the Egyptians at the Splitting of the Sea....God teaches us that - no matter how great our own personal blessings are, it is wrong on some level to fully celebrate when other human beings (in the midrash's case, the Egyptians) are suffering in the world.)

The ethos of that midrash is the basis for our Passover seder custom of dipping our finger into the wine for each of the plagues.  Our joy (represented by the wine) is lessened when we recall the suffering of others.

You might consider incorporating a version of that ritual into your Thanksgiving meal: symbolically acknowledging the suffering of others, even during this time of celebration.  (If you're not going to be serving wine at your table, and you don't want to stick your fingers into that Tofurky Jones Soda,  you might just go around and invite anyone who wants to share a story of someone they know who is suffering right now, or to simply call out - and raise your table's awareness to - the many kinds of suffering that exist in the world today (economic, racial, etc.).

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer of Chicago, offers other great suggestions about how to transform your Thanksgiving meal into a seder-like experience.  Check them out here.

We also have a Jewish imperative to give thanks for the abundance of our lives.  Whether you believe that our abundance comes from God, or from the many hard-working people (I'm thinking here of the farmers who toil in the fields and the textile producers who toil in factories) who produce the stuff we consume; nonetheless, we are Jewishly called to give thanks, and acknowledge the gratitude owed to the hard work of others.  For it is only because of them that we are able to enjoy that which we have been blessed with.  A great way to give thanks, after your meal, is to recite the creative English Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) that appears here.

For an even more meaningful Thanksgiving this year, you might consider attending our community's Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service, or Jewish Family Service's Thanksgiving Day Run for the Hungry.

Wishing you and your families a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving.

Shabbat Shalom.

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