Thanksgiving Through a Jewish Lens 


By Rabbi Pam Frydman

Excerpted from a Brunch with Brilliants Congregation P’nai Tikvah November 20, 2016

         On the Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, I gave this talk during Shabbat morning services about the connection between the American holiday of Thanksgiving and the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

The early Puritans who settled in the New World were Protestants and their original homeland was in England. The Puritans felt that the Anglican Church of England was not sufficiently Protestant and was too close to Roman Catholic. So, the Puritans raised their voices and protested against many of the practices of the Church of England. This created tension between the Puritans and the followers of the Anglican Church. Because of this, in the late 1500s, both the English government and the English people began marginalizing and persecuting the Puritans.

In 1608, the Puritans who were living in the village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire decided to escape persecution by moving to the Netherlands. They settled in the Dutch town of Leyden where there was also a community of Sephardi Jews.

According to my research, the Puritans witnessed the celebration of Sukkot among their Sephardi neighbors, including the practices of eating and sleeping in the sukkah, praying and singing songs of thanksgiving. Perhaps the Puritans also witnessed the shaking of the lulav and etrog.

The Puritans also read the Bible, which includes the story of the Israelites being in slavery and becoming free and eventually settling in the Promised Land. The Puritans longed for religious freedom in a land that had the promise of a better future. The Puritans enjoyed religious freedom in the Netherlands, but the Dutch open lifestyle was too liberal for the Puritans and they also had a difficult time finding work and obtaining promotions because the Dutch guilds did not welcome migrants.

For these reasons, the Puritans decided to relocate to the New World to begin a life of religious freedom and financial promise. So, they sent a delegation from the Netherlands to England to request permission from the British government to migrate to the British colonies in the New World. The British government gave the Puritans permission to create a settlement between Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Hudson River. The King of England also gave the Puritans permission to leave the Church of England and practice their own Protestant faith in the New World on the condition that they would conduct themselves peacefully.[1]

Based on my research, I believe the Puritan dream of settling in the New World to enjoy religious freedom and a better life was a form of walking in the footsteps of the ancient Israelites whose stories the Puritans had learned either from the Bible or from their Sephardi neighbors or perhaps both.

Meanwhile, the Puritans in England purchased a ship called the Mayflower and they sailed on the Mayflower from London to Southampton where they began purchasing provisions for the journey across the Atlantic.

The Puritans in the Netherlands purchased a second ship called the Speedwell. They left their homes in the Dutch town of Leyden and traveled to the Dutch port of Delfshaven, where they boarded the Speedwell and sailed to the English port of Southampton to meet up with the Mayflower.[2]

During the voyage from the Netherlands to England, the Speedwell began to leak. The Puritans repaired the Speedwell in England and they set sail for the New World on both the Speedwell and the Mayflower. After a week at sea, however, the Speedwell began leaking again, so they docked and repaired the ship yet again, but when they set sail again, the Speedwell began leaking yet again.

After three tries, the Puritans docked in the English port of Plymouth, they abandoned the Speedwell, loaded everything onto the Mayflower, and traveled to the New World on the one ship. During the journey across the Atlantic, the Puritans’ greatest challenge was sea sickness. When they arrived in the New World, their greatest challenge was stormy weather. Because of the weather, they were not able to reach the Hudson River, so they anchored in Provincetown Harbor on Cape Cod.

The Puritans who made the pilgrimage to the New World became known as Pilgrims. A number of Pilgrims perished on the Mayflower from illness or weather. The survivors left the ship in Provincetown and began exploring on land. After a month of exploration, they chose a site to build a plantation and on Christmas Day 1620, the Pilgrims began the construction of their first buildings.

Three months later, in March 1621, Native American leaders from the Wampanoag tribe approached the fledgling Pilgrim community. A Wampanoag named Squanto helped the Pilgrims to grow corn and he also helped them use fish to fertilize their fields. After several meetings between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, the two peoples joined together in an agreement to protect one another from other tribes in the area.[3]

In November 1621, a year after the Pilgrims had arrived in the New World, they had their first harvest and decided to hold a three-day celebration. According to historians, the Pilgrims went hunting for meat to enjoy with the produce from their harvest. The Wampanoag Native Americans heard lots of gunshots and they thought the Pilgrims were preparing for war.

Because of the agreement to protect one another, a Wampanoag leader, named Massasoit, visited the Pilgrims’ settlement with about 90 of his men to offer their help.[4] But Massasoit soon realized that the English Pilgrims were not going to war. They were just hunting for the celebration, so Massasoit sent some of his men to hunt deer and the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans joined together for a three-day celebration that came to be known as the first Thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans feasted on turkey, venison,[5] shellfish, corn, berries, pumpkins and squash. The connection between the first Thanksgiving and the Jewish Festival Sukkot was not in the menu, and it was also not in the guest list. Rather, it was in the celebration of the harvest and the welcoming of guests. It also seems that the first Thanksgiving was not a particularly religious festival and it was instead a harvest celebration.

By two years later, in 1623, the Pilgrims had become known as colonists, and they wanted to give thanks for the rain that had fallen after two months of drought. Their Thanksgiving celebration in 1623 was the first religious celebration of Thanksgiving and it included prayers of thanksgiving for the rain that had fallen.

I believe it is important to learn about the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans, because we tend to marginalize the Pilgrims without realizing that they began by having a meaningful relationship with Native Americans in their area. It was only later that the relationship between the Native Americans and the colonists became severed and genocide ensued.

The Jewish connection with the American holiday of Thanksgiving is in the giving of thanks for the harvest, in giving thanks for rain and in including our neighbors in the celebration. As we know, Sukkot was also an ancient harvest festival and a festival of giving thanks. Immediately following Sukkot, we celebrate the harvest festival of Shmini Atzeret, during which we begin our annual prayers for rain.

How blessed we are to live in the United States. We are not a perfect nation. The genocide against the Native Americans is not something of which we can be proud, but many immigrants have settled on this land, including our ancestors, and we and our ancestors have deep roots here.

May the American dream continue for us and our descendants. May our dreams also include the dreams of our Native American brothers and sisters who continue to live on this land. And may the American dream also continue for immigrants who have arrived more recently, and those who will arrive in the future. May we all learn to live together in peace. May we all merit to give thanks for the bounty of our lives during the season of Thanksgiving and throughout the year.

Kein yehi ratzon. So may it be.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] http://www.history.com/topics/mayflower

[2] http://mayflowerhistory.com/voyage/

[3] http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving

[4] http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/history/first-thanksgiving/

[5] Venison is deer meat.

Kein yehi ratzon. So may it be.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] http://www.history.com/topics/mayflower

[2] http://mayflowerhistory.com/voyage/

[3] http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving

[4] http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/history/first-thanksgiving/

[5] Venison is deer meat.