Rare moment: Holidays about religious freedom overlap

November 22, 2013 

It's just around the corner — Thanksgivukkah!

In a rare convergence of the calendar, Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah fall on the same date this year. The last time it happened was 1888. And according to those who track the Jewish calendar, it won't happen again for another 70,000-plus years, so there's plenty of time to plan for the next celebration.

Usually Hanukkah is a neighbor of Christmas, which tends to be a tough season for many Jews trying to juggle the Jewish and American sides of their psyche.

As kids, longing for the trappings of Christmas which so many of their neighbors enjoyed, Jews would be told "but you have Hanukkah." But beyond the presents, the stories of Hanukkah and Christmas are incompatible.

Christmas commemorates the birth of the Messiah, according to Christian belief. Jews believe the Messiah has yet to come.

Yet Hanukkah and Thanksgiving share a common theme of a quest for religious freedom. The Maccabees led a rebellion against a Syrian king who ruled Israel in ancient times. Jewish subjects were ordered to worship the pagan deities of the Greek pantheon.

Many Jews refused to surrender their ancestral religion, and the Maccabees were able to capture Jerusalem and relight the Temple's oil-burning candelabra, a victory commemorated by eating latkes (potato pancakes) cooked in oil on Hanukkah.

Two thousand years later, the Pilgrims faced a similar test of their religious commitment. England had left the Catholic Church, but had not quite become Protestant. For the Pilgrims, the reform had not gone far enough, and rather than forsake their beliefs, they embarked on the Mayflower voyage.

Those who survived an extremely tough first year held a Thanksgiving celebration.

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah share many of the same values: dedication, peace between nations, gratitude, and family.

With Hanukkah falling on Thanksgiving this year, the message of freedom is magnified by combining the holiday meal with lighting the candles.

Thanksgivukkah is a time to reinforce the cultural connection between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah of family gatherings, eating delicious foods from both traditions and rededicating ourselves to building community.

It's pretty amazing that in the United States we can have rich secular and rich religious celebrations and those who live in both worlds can find moments when they meet and can really celebrate that convergence. This is not the case in so many places in the world today.

So on Nov. 28, 2013, Jews and non-Jews alike will sit down to their holiday meal to give thanks in America for the religious freedom we all enjoy here and to celebrate the ways religious freedom makes America great.

If ever there was a day for deep fried turkey and sweet potato latkes, this is it.

Michael J. Grossman of Lexington is president of the Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass.

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