“You cut the turkey without me?!?”
This classic line from Avalon, Barry Levinson’s 1990 film about a Baltimore Jewish family, illustrates the pitfalls of family get-togethers. The movie plays up the popular Jewish (self-)image that we are an argumentative people–a stereotype that many of us may acknowledge has a grain of truth. Thanksgiving presents the perfect backdrop for this angry uncle’s eruption. The holiday is generally thought of as a mild excuse for family to get together, eat certain ritual foods, and perhaps watch football games. The rising level of kvetching during the scene signifies the overlay of Jewish culture upon an American tradition.
Of course, Thanksgiving has become freighted far beyond the Jewish community in recent years. The eruption in Avalon has been reproduced at tables throughout the land, as families are more divided than ever over political and social matters. Last year, many people proclaimed that they were not attending their family Thanksgiving meals because they could not abide a conversation with the so-and-sos on the other side. The holiday has come to symbolize not the message of national unity, of the Pilgrim and the Native American breaking bread together, but of the painful fissures in our body politic.
Coming back together, as a community, a people and a nation, is hard work, and it can only begin when everyone takes a seat at the table. We must try to look beyond our current disagreements to the larger vision that unites us. We can look to the past, to our history and heritage as a people, and our nation’s welcome of Jews and others to these shores–acknowledging that the welcome has been uneven and far from perfect for Jews, and for some much more devastating. We can look to the future, to our hopes for a vibrant Jewish life, a thriving society and a safe world where people interact with respect to confront local and global challenges.
May we all leave our Thanksgiving meals feeling more connected and hopeful than when we arrived. And please, let Uncle Gabriel carve the turkey.
Apropos, the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution has recently created a program, “Mahloket Matters: How to Disagree Constructively,” drawing upon Jewish resources to inform this work.
Happy Thanksgiving–Yom Hodayah sameach!