Get ready for “Thanksgivukkah”

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah usually falls in December, often close to Christmas. This leads to what some Jews call “the December dilemma” – how to celebrate our holiday in a meaningful and fun way without making it seem like “the Jewish Christmas,” because the two celebrations have absolutely nothing in common.

This year, due to a quirk of the calendar, the first day of Chanukah coincides with Thanksgiving. It’s not much of a problem to celebrate the two in tandem, because Thanksgiving, though it has spiritual overtones, is not a religious holiday and there’s nothing about it that makes Jews uneasy about celebrating it. Writers who think they’re clever have taken to adopting the term “Thanksgivukkah.”

A rare congruence

I think everyone is going so crazy about it because it is so exceedingly rare. Data crunchers have discovered that the first time the two holidays would have coincided was 1861–but there was no all-American Thanksgiving then; President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first Thanksgiving in 1863. Until 1942, Thanksgiving was the last Thursday in November; now it’s the fourth Thursday in November (sometimes there are five). In 1888, Chanukah started on Thanksgiving Day because it was the last Thursday of November, November 29. The next time the start of Chanukah and Thanksgiving will coincide will be–well, maybe never! From now on, due to the way the Jewish calendar is organized, the earliest Chanukah can start will be November 29, which is too late to ever be Thanksgiving.

But wait, there’s more! The Jewish calendar is slowly getting out of sync with the Gregorian calendar, by a few days per thousand years. This calendar drift means the Jewish calendar will slowly loop through the Gregorian calendar until it’s back where it is now. But that won’t happen until the year 79811 – and the most prestigious rabbis will probably get together before then to correct it so that the fall holidays will remain in the fall and the spring holidays will remain in the spring.

Then again, Jewish holidays always start at sundown, so even though the first day of Chanukah is on Thanksgiving this year, we’ll begin lighting Chanukah candles the night before Thanksgiving.  In 2070 and 2165, the first day of Chanukah will fall on the day after Thanksgiving; in those years, the first candle will be lit on Thanksgiving Day after sundown. Maybe that will count as another “Thanksgivukkah,” maybe it won’t.

For some interesting charts comparing the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, see this blog by Jonathan Mizrahi (where I got a lot of this information).

Newspapers, magazines and websites are having a heyday with articles about how to combine the celebration of Thanksgiving and Chanukah. One enterprising retailer is even selling a turkey-shaped Chanukah menorah called a Menurkey.

Some clergy are looking for ways to combine the Thanksgiving message of gratitude with the Chanukah message of dedication (the literal meaning of the word, for the rededication of the Temple after the Jewish victory over the Assyrians). One who does it well is Rabbi Yael Levy in this table blessing.

A Thanksgivukkah grinch

Grinches are usually associated with Christmas. If there’s a Thanksgivukkah version, it’s probably Rabbi David Brenner who wrote “Why I Will Not Be Celebrating ‘Thanksgivukkah’”  for the Huffington Post. He says mash-ups dilute the message of both holidays. Thanksgiving helps all Americans overcome the divisions that separate us, he says.

In the rituals celebrating this fall harvest festival, we Americans are united in connecting to our land and the good things it produces. Chanukah is the opposite. Rather than celebrating the coming together of disparate parties, like the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, it commemorates a military victory in second century BCE Judea. The Maccabees were not a tolerant lot, but they triumphed over a much larger force. Rabbi Brenner says Chanukah could better be compared with Independence Day.

(See a cute anti-Thanksgivukkah video by Rabbi Brenner on the Heeb Magazine website.)

Cook New World foods in oil!

Most of the “whee-it’s Thanksgivukkah” articles are food-related, because that seems to be the easiest way to combine the traditions of Thanksgiving and Chanukah. As I pointed out last week, traditional Chanukah foods are fried or baked in oil, to symbolize the Chanukah miracle: when the Maccabees overcame the Assyrians and reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem, they could find only one tiny cruse of pure oil for the Eternal Light, enough for one day. They lit the lamp, and the oil lasted for eight days, until more oil could be procured.

So for “Thanksgivukkah,” just combine a harvest-y and New World food (e.g. cranberries, sweet potatoes, pumpkin) with an oily preparation and you’re all set: potato latkes (pancakes) with cranberry sauce, or latkes made from sweet potatoes or squash, or pumpkin doughnuts.  Or if you’re adventurous, deep fry your turkey! There are some good recipes on the MyJewishDetroit website.

Personally, I’m very much looking forward to celebrating the two holidays together. Thanksgiving is a big deal in my family, the one time of year when my siblings and I all get together. My brother in New Jersey and my sister outside Washington, DC take turns hosting. When our children were little we would deliver Chanukah gifts at Thanksgiving because it was easier than shipping them later, but we were never able to celebrate Chanukah together. This year will be a first.

In the spirit of Chanukah, with a bit of a fall-harvest-Thanksgiving flavor, I offer this recipe for Cinnamon-Apple Latkes. They can be served as a side dish or a dessert. Whenever I’ve made them I’ve gotten rave reviews and requests for the recipe. This recipe makes about 16 latkes. Happy holidays, everyone! 

Celebrating the Season of Gratitude

As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us start thinking about what we’re grateful for. I asked my Facebook friends and got some interesting answers:

  • I’m grateful that you and I are still breathing, still know each other and still have our wits about us!
  • I am grateful for so many births and young people in the family for filling a small part of the space lost from loved ones departed. I am grateful those departed are forever woven into the fabric of our lives and not so gone after all.
  • I’m grateful more than anything for lessons in human awareness. Learning how to be kinder, more compassionate, whatever the circumstance, for speaking up for what is true to me instead of suppressing emotions. Those close to me would say this is a very good thing.
  • I’m thankful for my mom. Even though she’s been gone for almost 10 years, she’s still my best friend and my rock. Every day, I still feel like she’s right by my side. I’m so thankful for all the days I was able to laugh, hug, and hear her voice.
  • I am most grateful for all those I know who are more about “us” than “me,” who have a social conscience.
  • I am most grateful for the full, rich life I have, which has nothing to do with “stuff” and everything to do with having an awesome son, amazing and loving family and friends, and a deep spiritual connection to my religion.
  • Having worked in hospice for the last 10 years, I have learned to be grateful for the things that we take for granted. I find myself, daily, being grateful for my wonderful parents, who nurtured me, gave me a strong Jewish identity including moral guidelines and a strong sense of awe for the miracles that are daily with us. Due to this safe, nurturing home, all of the other blessings in my life have followed.

One thing I am grateful for is being a board member of WISDOM, Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue in Metro Detroit, an amazing and diverse group of women committed to fostering interfaith connections through friendship.

In fact, a book by WISDOM members, Friendship & Faith, was one of the first books published by Read the Spirit!

In about 10 days, WISDOM will host one of its periodic potluck dinners, where participants are encouraged to bring dishes that represent their religious or ethnic heritage.

This is a good month for a WISDOM potluck, because it perfectly defines the type of Season of Gratitude event envisioned by the  Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit (IFLC).

We associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, and churches and villages in the colonial and early American periods often held annual harvest dinners similar to the first Thanksgiving.

But Thanksgiving didn’t truly become an American holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln’s issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation, inviting “my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

You’ll find lots of fascinating historical materials about Lincoln and Thanksgiving at our Lincoln Resource Page. In addition, the IFLC has prepared a guide, available online, to help congregations and organizations plan a Season of Gratitude event—a “salon” (discussion group), or meal, or a combination—that is open to people of all faiths. “The event should celebrate and demonstrate gratitude for all of the diverse contributions people make to our civic community,” notes the IFLC’s guide.

Here is the recipe for the dish I plan to bring to the WISDOM potluck: Jerusalem kugel. A kugel is a pudding, It’s most often made of noodles, but can also be made of potatoes, corn, rice, zucchini or just about any grain or vegetable bound with eggs and baked. Most people pronounce it with a “u” like in “sugar,” but others say “koogle” or even “kiggle.”

A Jerusalem kugel is a sweet-and-spicy noodle pudding, with lots of caramelized sugar and black pepper.

I’m also planning to bring it to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, because Thanksgiving this year coincides with Chanukah. That’s a subject for another blog. Suffice it to say that traditional Chanukah foods use a lot of oil, usually to fry the food in. This dish is not fried, but it does use a lot of oil so it qualifies.

Most recipes direct you to cook the noodles, then caramelize the sugar in the oil and add it to the noodles with the eggs. I adapted this recipe from one that appeared in the New York Times in 2005. You caramelize the sugar first, then add water to it for cooking the noodles. I found this to be an easier method that results in a smoother consistency, without little hard bits of caramelized sugar in the kugel. It’s somewhat time-consuming but well worth the effort.

You have to be careful when caramelizing the sugar. If you let it go even 30 seconds too long, it will burn. And if you’ve never done it, you may not know what to expect. This is what happens when you mix the sugar with the oil and heat it: First the sugar will seem to dissolve, but much of the oil will remain separate. As the mixture continues to cook, it will seem to solidify as the oil is absorbed, and you’ll have clumps of moistened sugar. Keep stirring. Finally the sugar will start to melt and turn brown. Stir it constantly and watch it like a hawk. As soon as the color is golden brown, almost as dark as you want, pull it off the flame–I say “almost” because the hot syrup will continue to cook for short while.

This makes a very large kugel, enough to feed 12 or more. To make a smaller kugel, use 8 ounces of noodles, ⅓ cup oil, 1¼ tsp. salt, ½ tsp. black pepper, 1 cup sugar and 3 eggs, and bake it in an 8-inch square pan.