A feastival of lights

November 24, 2013
menurkey

In a culture obsessed with mashups (“Sharknado,” Kimye, Chrismukkah), it’s no wonder the most hyped holiday of 2013 is Nov. 28. That’s when the first full day of Hanukkah — which is early this year — coincides with a late Thanksgiving.

“It’s like once-in-a-multi-lifetime,” says Rabbi Shira Stutman of D.C.’s Sixth and I Synagogue. By some calculations, “Thanksgivukkah” — the name that’s stuck — won’t occur again for more than 70,000 years. (It did happen in 1888, but only because the date of Thanksgiving moved around more back then.)

The union of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah is fertile territory for more mashups. A 9-year-old in New York designed a turkey-shaped menorah, dubbed a “Menurkey” (sold at menurkey.com). A New York doughnut shop is replacing Hanukkah’s traditional jelly-filled doughnut with a turkey- and cranberry-stuffed version. And turducken fans around the country are scouring the Internet in search of recipes for turbrisket.

Catchy portmanteaus aside, both holidays have their roots in religious freedom, Stutman says. The Pilgrims came to America to practice Christianity the way they wanted. Hanukkah commemorates a Jewish rebellion against Syrian occupiers who sought to outlaw Judaism.

They also share themes of miracles and abundance: Thanksgiving harks back to the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest, which they celebrated with their American Indian neighbors. Hanukkah remembers when a day’s worth of oil kept the Temple of Jerusalem’s eternal flame alight for eight days.

That sense of plenitude is why foodies are having such a field day.

“It’s like culinary heaven for some people,” says Susan Barocas, project director at the Jewish Food Experience. “Thanksgiving is all about abundance and overload and foods you might not normally eat every day. The same goes for Hanukkah, which is the Jewish excuse for eating fried foods.”

That makes Thanksgivukkah your big chance to deep-fry your turkey or stuff it with challah.

In the spirit of mashups, “It’s the perfect opportunity to [gather] a wonderful crowd of people who wouldn’t ordinarily celebrate together,” Barocas says. If your guests aren’t familiar with Hanukkah, “welcome them to contribute something from their tradition.”

Finding an activity for the Thanksgivukkah table is easy: Give thanks. “Having everyone talk about what their blessings are is a very Hanukkah-like tradition,” Stutman says.

The holidays have another, less-pleasant element in common: The myths surrounding each don’t line up with historical reality. The harmonious dinner party of Thanksgiving ignores the contentious relationship settlers had with American Indians. In the Hanukkah story, the Jews weren’t a united front against the Syrians but were fighting one another as well.

Despite their complicated histories, we continue to love celebrating these holidays. “We have to understand the stories in all their fullness,” Stutman says. “Both the miracles and the challenges or the open questions.”

That’s something to ponder this year as you light the Menurkey

The First Thanksgivukkah

The prior Thanksgiving-Hanukkah pileup was in 1888, well before the term Thanksgivukkah was coined. The dual holidays merited a story in The Washington Post, albeit a small one (see page 3).

“I think there was curiosity about the overlapping of holidays,” says Claire Uziel, an assistant archivist at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. “For a long time, there was this question about the Jewish population of the U.S.: Are you a Jewish-American, or an American-Jew? Which holiday would get higher standing among the religious community?”

Today, “We all celebrate Hanukkah and do a turkey dinner,” Uziel says. “No one is asking if one will trump the other one.”

Members of Both Tribes

Faith Roessel’s home in Bethesda is possibly the only address in the country that gets both the Navajo Times and the Jewish Week.

Roessel, who grew up on the Navajo Indian reservation in Round Rock, Ariz., converted to Judaism more than two decades ago when she married her husband, Matthew Slater. Their three sons call themselves the “Nava-Jews.” (“I’d like them to find nice Navajo-Jewish girls,” Roessel jokes.) So when she considers Thanksgivukkah, what strikes her is how the two holidays intersect with her family’s dual identity.

“If you think about the story of Hanukkah, it’s a small minority [fighting] for rights,” she says, pointing out that American Indians have been engaged in similar struggles since their first contact with Europeans.

As for Thanksgiving, it’s a reminder to appreciate the natural world — a critical part of the Navajo belief system and a theme that’s repeated in the Jewish blessings recited before every meal. It’s also a celebration of togetherness, which Roessel connects to both her faith and her heritage. (Judaism requires a minyan, a quorum of adults, to recite certain prayers. Navajo healing ceremonies call for entire communities.)

In yet one more case of calendar alignment, Thanksgivukkah is falling at a time of year especially significant to the Navajo. “The harvest is complete, and, after the first frost, the winter ceremonies begin,” Roessel says, explaining that the seasonal shift is considered the beginning of the new year. “That’s when the teaching happens.”

Among the Roessel family, though, there isn’t much of a need to hash out these ideas: “We are who we are,” she says. “It’s not like there’s one day we remember that.” Vicky Hallett (Express)

Beth Marlowe is a senior editor at Washington Post Express. She has written for The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Bloomberg Television and other publications.
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Marissa Payne · November 24, 2013