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October 31, 2014

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Thanksgivukkah may be once in a lifetime, but celebrations of family, friends and freedom are timeless

Happy Thanksgivukkah!

This past Thanksgiving Day was the first time anyone alive could say that and the last time anyone alive today will be able to say that again — unless you plan to live another 78,000 years or change the Hebrew or Gregorian calendars.

Hanukkah, the traditional Jewish Festival of Lights, most often falls on or around the Christmas holiday. Christmas is always on Dec. 25, but the Hebrew calendar is not as specific, mostly because it follows the sun and the moon so the dates actually move against the Gregorian calendar.

I know it may sound confusing, but try growing up Jewish and trying to plan events around an ever-moving date. And try explaining that to your young Christian friends.

What I remember most about those early days and the Hanukkah-Christmas affair is that most of my friends wanted to be Jewish because Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days with a present for each while Christmas is a one-day celebration.

So how, all of a sudden, does the Christmas confusion become a Thanksgiving affair?

First, recall that Hanukkah has been celebrated since the second century B.C., when Jews led by Judah Maccabee defeated the superior forces of King Antiochus IV of Greece. The fight was over religious persecution. The Greeks refused to let the Jews practice their religion, and the Jewish people were having none of that.

When the war was won, the Jews rededicated the Temple but found enough oil to burn in the Temple’s holy menorah for only one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight nights. Hence the Festival of Lights, during which Hanukkah candles burn in a menorah for eight days.

At its core, Hanukkah is a celebration of religious freedom.

Now, let’s talk about Thanksgiving. There are a number of stories surrounding this traditionally American holiday — which is my favorite — but the most popular one involves the Pilgrims in 1621 giving thanks for a bountiful harvest. They invited many of their Native American friends, whose assistance was critical in helping them survive their first winters in the New World. In a sense, that first Thanksgiving celebration was all about life in a world free of religious persecution and the miracle of survival against long odds.

Over the years, the holiday of Thanksgiving became enshrined in our laws, first with President Abraham Lincoln declaring a national day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November 1863, and then almost 80 years later with President Franklin Roosevelt signing a law that made the celebration of thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of every November. That was ostensibly to provide the nation’s retailers more time between Thanksgiving and Christmas to boost the economy.

How is that working out this year? Anyone leave the dinner table early to rush out for a Black Friday sale Thursday evening?

In any event, with the change of the Thanksgiving date to the fourth Thursday of November and what with the changing relationship between the sun and the moon that affects the Hebrew calendar, it seems that this year was the first time that Thanksgiving was late enough to meet up with a very early celebration of Hanukkah. And, depending on how you count, the next time this will happen — if it does — will be in 78,000 years!

What this all means to me is that this year’s celebration of Thanksgivukkah, is very special, indeed. So what should we take from it, besides an extra piece of pie or a yam-filled potato latke?

The calendar merging of these two celebrations comes at a tumultuous time, with so many clashing beliefs and convictions, with no spirit for tolerance or compromise. We see it among countries, among neighbors, even within our own families, where cooperation has succumbed to conflict. But maybe we can all step back and reflect on how we can benefit from the lessons of Thanksgivukkah.

What are those lessons?

First, the Pilgrims, as righteous as they were in seeking freedom from religious persecution, did not have the ability to succeed on their own. They would have starved themselves out of existence in the harsh winters of Massachusetts had it not been for Squanto, an American Indian who taught them how to fish, grow corn and farm their land. Their Thanksgiving celebration honored Squanto and the Wampanoag Indians.

As for Hanukkah, when the Syrian-Greeks decided that the Jews could not be Jewish in their own land, the odds were stacked against them. They were ordered to worship idols and eat pigs or be killed.

The Jews rebelled against enormous odds but defeated those who would oppress them (a common theme for the past few thousand years). It was the miracle of one night’s worth of oil lasting for eight nights that caused the celebration of what, for most Jews, is a relatively minor holiday.

But, it is rooted in the theme of religious freedom and it is celebrated in the warmth of family and friends. Just like Thanksgiving.

So, when we look for significance in this once-in-forever coming together of these two holidays, perhaps it should be simply to recognize that what is important to people all over the globe must be family, friends and the miracle of survival against the longest odds.

If we can understand and appreciate that, the rest of what we argue about should be easier to understand and overcome. And, if not, we have 78,000 years before we have to consider it again.

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