By Rielle Miller Gabriel, President
What does it mean to be a Modern Jew? This is a complex question. It deserves deep thought and scholarship. While I am not such a scholar, I offer this small contribution to the dialogue— one I learned through the teachings of our Temple Micah clergy.
Many years ago (seven or eight I think), my husband and I joined the Parenting Group while our daughter attended Machon Micah. The focus of this particular group session was Thanksgiving, and in particular how we could celebrate it not just as Americans, but also as Jews. The rabbi led us through some readings— one of which I still have (“Did Sukkot help shape Thanksgiving?” by Robert Gluck/JNS.org)—and some discussion. All were provided a sort of Thanksgiving haggadah for us to use (or not) at our own Thanksgiving tables a few weeks later. As a young family, looking to create a meaningful holiday, we were willing to give the Thanksgiving seder a try.
That first Thanksgiving, it was…weird. Despite growing up in what I consider to be a pretty “Jewish” family, the most purposefully-Jewish thing about our Thanksgiving was having kugel or latkes with our turkey. So setting the Thanksgiving meal into a seder format, reciting Hebrew prayers, and ending in joyous song was certainly different.
But it was a good different.
It’s not unusual to feel a bit awkward doing something new for the first time. We felt that, for sure. But there was also an appreciation of the new structure to the meal, the built-in participatory elements, and the focus on the meaning —not just “thankfulness” as we conceive of it in our well-off 21st century bubble, but a purposeful connection to the historical gratitude of that harvest in 1621. And of having the freedom to celebrate our gratitude in the way that we choose. Suddenly and intentionally, this very American holiday —and our Americanness when we celebrate it —became connected to our Jewishness.
And it felt right.
Every year since that fateful Sunday, our family pulls out our Thanksgiving haggadah to prepare for our Fall seder. This haggadah (much like our one for Passover) is marked up with pencil notes of our preferences and changes. And on the fourth Thursday of November, we light the (shabbat) candles, we say our traditional Hebrew prayers, we participate in readings about American liberty, and we tell the story —the nation’s, our own, our guests’ —of the journey to freedom in the United States of America. We remember where we came from, we share our gratitude for the country we became, and we share our hopes for the country we could still be.
And, of course, we eat.
I may not know exactly what it means to be a Modern Jew, but I am grateful to have this community with which to explore the complexities of this question and co-create our American Jewish lives.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of the Vine.