Faith Roessel and Matthew Slater’s home in Bethesda is possibly the only address in the country that gets both the Navajo Times and Jewish Week. And it’s definitely the most fitting place to spend Thanksgivukkah.
For many Jews, the rare convergence this year of Turkey Day and the Festival of Lights is an excuse to nosh on kugel smothered with gravy — and possibly purchase a “Menurkey,” a $50 plaster menorah in the shape of a turkey. But all that Roessel, Slater and their children need to get into the spirit of the holiday is to be themselves.
Roessel, the granddaughter of a medicine man, grew up on the Navajo reservation in Round Rock, Ariz. Slater, the grandson of Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe, grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. She converted to Judaism before they married 25 years ago.
Their sons, Carl, 22, Aaron, 19, and Sam, 15, have come up with a term to describe their family: “Nava-Jews.”
“I’d like them to find nice Navajo-Jewish girls,” jokes Roessel, tossing back her long, dark hair and brushing her hand against the heavy turquoise-and-silver necklace she wears to remember her mother. Her laugh summons Shibaaii, a Shih Tzu who swiftly mops his way across the floor until Sam scoops the little gray dog into his arms. “He’s our Nava-Jew puppy,” Sam says.
The family proudly belongs to both the Navajo Nation and Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue on Old Georgetown Road. As babies, the boys each had a bris, as well as a first laugh ceremony. There’s a mezuza that holds a Jewish prayer affixed to every doorway in the house and dried corn in nearly every room. And in Roessel’s kosher kitchen, she reserves a cast-iron pan for Navajo fry bread.
The pan makes an appearance on a recent afternoon, as Roessel gathers her family to prepare a batch of fry bread the way she learned to growing up on the reservation. She dips her hands in a bowl of flour, claps them together and pulls off a small piece of dough.
Carl and Sam laugh at each other as they also grab handfuls of the sticky mixture and attempt to flatten it between their palms. Slater observes from a few feet away. (“I’m not going to endanger the family,” he quips.)
To keep her sous chefs on task, Roessel offers a series of pointers: Work the dough until it’s thin — but not too thin, or it’ll be too crispy; lay it down gently in the pan; continue turning it as it puffs up, so it won’t burn.
But the real trick to fry bread, Roessel says, is a sizzling-hot pan. That’s why she was already a pro at handling oil when she whipped up her first batch of latkes — much to the amazement of her Jewish mother-in-law.
So, when Roessel considers Hanukkah, what has always struck her is how it intersects with her dual identity.
Think about why we celebrate Hanukkah, Roessel says. The heroes of the holiday are the Maccabees, a small minority fighting for their rights and control of their land. That resonates with Roessel, who can’t help but think of the fact that American Indians have been engaged in similar struggles since their first contact with Europeans.
Add Thanksgiving to the mix, and Thursday’s festivities take on more meaning. The quintessential American holiday is rooted in the story of the Puritans breaking bread with Indians to celebrate the bounty of the Earth.
Appreciation of the natural world is a critical part of the Navajo belief system, Roessel says, and a theme that’s repeated in the Jewish blessings recited before every meal.
Thanksgiving is also a celebration of togetherness, which Roessel identifies as yet another connection between her faith and her heritage.
Recently, she and her husband were called to a cousin’s house after a relative’s death. They helped form a minyan, the quorum of adults necessary to say kaddish, the prayer of mourning.
“Similarly, to have a healing ceremony, you need the community,” Roessel explains of Navajo traditions. “It’s not just you and your medicine person. You need relatives to cook food, tend the fire.”
When Roessel picked up the most recent issue of her synagogue’s newsletter, she was interested to read Rabbi Bill Rudolph’s take on Thanksgivukkah. He focused on the quirks of calendar alignment and the improbability of anyone celebrating the next time Thanksgivukkah comes around, in about 70,000 years: “If you believe in global warming, it is fair to say humans won’t be alive at that time and if there are no humans, the holidays will likely be canceled,” he wrote.
That’s a glass-half-empty-of-Manischewitz way to look at things. But he’s not wrong, Roessel says, grimly noting that American Indians were some of the first people to sound the alarm about climate change.
The Navajo calendar, unlike the Jewish or Gregorian versions, has no set dates. The weather dictates when seasons change.
But at least this year, Thanksgivukkah is falling at an especially significant time — the Navajo new year. “The harvest is complete, and, after the first frost, the winter ceremonies begin,” Roessel says. “That’s when the teaching happens.”
Teaching, for Roessel, is a crucial part of every season. Her parents were pioneers in blending Navajo and Western schooling techniques and founded the country’s first tribal-run college. Roessel attended Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., and the University of New Mexico School of Law. In 1983, she moved to Washington to work for then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and met Slater a year later.
Now that her mother and father have passed away, Roessel has set aside her legal career to follow their path. From the time her sons entered preschool, she has frequently visited their classrooms to speak about her heritage. For the past seven years, she has also volunteered her time to lead service trips out West for students. Roessel is now developing a curriculum about American Indians for non-Indians to “counter prejudice and bridge understanding.”
When she welcomes guests into her house, she’s both host and guide, eager to explain the traditions depicted in paintings and open up cabinets to show off her craft collection.
In the dining room, there’s an assortment of kippot, or Jewish head coverings, featuring Navajo patterns. Roessel remembers her mom sewing dozens of these for Carl’s bar mitzvah. Just above, in a frame, is much larger circular design. That’s the “changing woman,” who matures with the seasons and is one of Roessel’s favorite Navajo legends.
Drums and figurines from several American Indian tribes share shelf space with a clay hanukkiah — the traditional name for a Hanukkah menorah — that she and Slater received as a wedding gift. Close by sits the low woven basket that was part of their Navajo nuptials.
“We shared the cornmeal mush on there, and that unified us,” Roessel says.
In their time together, the couple have continued to discover connections. Both the Jews and the Navajo are desert peoples, Roessel points out, which is why paintings of the Sinai feel so familiar to her. Historically, both groups were sheepherders. (The family’s sheep-shaped cookie jar is a nod to this.) Just as there are kosher regulations of how to butcher animals, the Navajo have ceremonial approaches to hunting.
And their views of what’s most important align, Slater says. He sees parallels in the way the Navajo take care of one another and their openness to a sense of wonder. “We seem to coexist pretty easily,” he adds. For a guy from New Rochelle, Slater does look mighty comfortable in a pair of cowboy boots and a turquoise bracelet.
So, how much will they be hashing out these ideas over the Thanksgivukkah meal?
“We are who we are. It’s not like there’s one day we remember that,” Roessel says.
But they’ll be giving special thanks for latkes — a dish no Jews would be able to enjoy without the help of natives of the new world, who cultivated the potato.