This year, for the first time since 1888, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincide in what many in the Jewish community are calling “Thanksgivukkah.” The eight-day Jewish holiday begins at sundown on Wednesday. The next day is Thanksgiving.
Hanukkah celebrates a great war between the Maccabees, a Jewish rebel army attempting to regain control of Judea, from the Greek-Syrians who denied the Jews the right to live full Jewish lives.
Following the military victory, the temple in Jerusalem was rededicated ( hanukkah in Hebrew). A lamp in the temple, so the story goes, with one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days. It is this miracle, symbolizing the religious freedom of the Jewish people that is commemorated through lighting the Hanukkah candles.
Thanksgiving has evolved from the gathering in Plymouth of English Pilgrims and native Wampanoags to a holiday declared by the Continental Congress in 1777 as a unifying day when, “at one time and with one voice the good people may express the grateful feeling of their hearts.” As president, in 1789, George Washington focused on enshrining the values of the new country, declaring it a day of public thanksgiving and prayer for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.”
The coincidence of these two holidays provides an opportunity to show appreciation for the miracle that is the United States of America.
These two separate and distinct holidays, one non-sectarian and the other Jewish, emphasize two halves of the whole of America’s promise and they symbolize why the United States is a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.
Thanksgiving is a day to appreciate how our heritage enriches America and our democratic values unite us. At a time of rapid demographic change in the United States and around the world, coupled with deepening global issues, it is increasingly important that we Americans view our individual and communal differences as a source of vitality and strength, not a cause for division.
In a world too often threatened by differences, Thanksgiving is a unifying holiday that people of all ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds can celebrate.
At the same time, part of what makes the United States unique is that minorities are able to express our own different identities without fear of attack. This right of minorities to worship differently than the majority while still being treated equally under the law, is what we call pluralism, and it is a bedrock principle of democratic societies. It is what brought the Pilgrims to the United States, and it is what immigrants, the descendants of immigrants, and those who came to America under the cruelest of circumstances have prayed for and always sought.
At this time in history, it is more important than ever to remember and appreciate this country’s uniqueness. American civic and political traditions have made it possible for minorities to participate fully in this society. And our commitment to pluralism and diversity permits groups the opportunity to pursue their goals while coalescing with others around shared concerns.
These two aspects of America — the ability to celebrate unifying holidays like Thanksgiving, coupled with the ability to maintain our particular faith or cultural traditions — strengthens our society and gives hope and inspiration to people around the globe.
May we continue to be thankful for the blessing that is the United States of America.
Brian Siegal is the Director of AJC’s Miami and Broward Regional Office.