What can it mean that for the first time in more than 100 years the first night of Chanukah is also Thanksgiving? This gives us an opportunity to appreciate some basic Jewish and American ideas and ideals. Thanksgiving comes to us from the Puritans. There are certain beliefs of the Puritans for which we should give thanks.
First of all, the United States of America (a Puritan creation if there ever was one) saved the Jewish people. So hats off to the Puritans! If it weren't for America, 85 percent of North American Jews, who are descended from some 2.5 million who came from Eastern and Central Europe between 1882 and 1914, would have had no refuge. The United States is Israel's best friend for a simple reason: they share common aspirations and beliefs. They are the only two nations on Earth that believe they have a higher purpose. That is what Jewish and American exceptionalism means.
While the Jewish people did not arrive in North America, in what was to become the United States until 1654, they were predated by the arrival and impact of the Torah-and by certain remarkable ideas of Judaism and the Jewish people brought here by the Puritans. These ideas were to shape the very nature of American democracy and civilization long after the Puritans themselves were gone from the scene. The deep affinity of America for the Jewish people and for Israel has its roots in the foundation built for American civilization by the Puritans.
No Christian group has so identified themselves with the Jewish people and the Torah as did the Puritans who first settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They made the Jewish story their story. They saw themselves as the ancient Israelites fleeing the oppression of the new Egypt that was England whose kings were latter day Pharaohs. They saw the pact they made with each other at Plymouth Rock like God's covenant at Sinai. They saw the rules by which they committed themselves to live, to be of divine origin. Because of this identification with sacred Jewish history Puritans had an innate sense of compassion and respect for the Jewish people in their own time. One of the most remarkable features of Puritan attachment to the Hebrew Bible, to the Torah, was the privileged place assigned to the Hebrew language in the early academic life of New England.
Through the 18th Century, Hebrew language instruction was required at Harvard and Yale. Yale's first President, Ezra Stiles, not only conversed in Hebrew, but delivered commencement addresses in Hebrew. Because they saw the Massachusetts Bay Colony in North America as the Promised Land, they assigned many Biblical place names that are found to this day throughout New England. Most famous among them of course is Salem for Jerusalem. The universities they established, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia all have Hebrew in their logos.
For the Puritans, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the Promised Land. They were inspired by the central narrative of the Torah that a chosen people is given a promised land by God, and after much difficulty arrives there. They believed that in that Promised Land they had an obligation to take up their divinely ordained mission and, because of that, America has for centuries stood by the Jewish people and by Israel.
Thanksgiving has always occupied a special place in the American-Jewish imagination. It provides Jewish people with the opportunity to fully participate in a great American ritual that is not part of the holiday calendar of another faith community. Thanksgiving as a family gathering in gratitude to God emerges out of such celebrations as the Shabbat family dinner and the Passover family Seder. This year there is special Jewish meaning to Thanksgiving.
As Jewish people throughout America gather around their Thanksgiving tables they will begin their family meal with the lighting of Chanukah candles. How fitting it is for the Jewish people to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the tyranny of Antiochus and his attempt to erase Judaism on the very day when Americans celebrate the beginning of American civilization and the successful Puritan flight from the tyranny of the kings of the British Empire.
So let's heed the summons of the Puritan authored Hebrew logo of Yale University taken from the breast plate of the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest: URIM V'TUMIM-LUX ET VERITAS., Light and Truth. The light of these simple Jewish candles to this day express a great truth. The Puritan founded America is but the latest venue of the amazing Jewish capacity for continuity and renewal.
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is rabbinic scholar of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.