Ways to Incorporate Judaism into Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Traditionally we think of it as a secular American celebration. It’s a time when we bring our family together for a holiday, without consideration for lighting a Yom Tov (holiday) candle, making our favorite kugel recipe or exploring Jewish texts associated with the holiday. Instead, we’re busy cooking turkey, setting the table with gourds and tuning in to football games.

The root of Thanksgiving has strong Jewish ties. It’s a time we share gratitude, or hakarat hatov. It’s a harvest holiday, where we give thanks for the abundance we have on our tables. Does that sound familiar? (think Sukkot and Shavuot).

So, why not infuse a ‘Jewish’ touch into Thanksgiving and show how we can weave Jewish values into every aspect of our lives?

Thanksgiving is the one holiday I host at my house with many family members. As a Jewish educator and mom, I value every opportunity to infuse Judaism into daily life.

Here are five ways to incorporate Judaism into your Thanksgiving:

Set a Space for Everyone at the Table

From the moment I could use a crayon, my beloved nana gave me a special job: to create table name plates for everyone coming to the meal. This responsibility made me eager to see all the family members who were coming and gave me an outlet for my creative and busy hands.

Setting a place for everyone at the table plays a crucial role in welcoming friends and family. Hachnasat Orchim is the mitzvah of welcoming guests.  Perhaps a child practicing their Hebrew could include both Hebrew and English names on each name plate.

Connect to the Jewish American Experience

If you have young children at your Thanksgiving table, check out this PJ Library book, Not This Turkey by Jessica Steinberg. My kids absolutely adore this book. It shares the story of Mel and his family, German Jewish immigrants, coming to United States, and they are interested in celebrating Thanksgiving for the first time.

The story raises important questions, such as: What is the importance of Thanksgiving to the American experience?  How do American holidays fit into our own lives as Jews who live in America?

Light Candles and Say a Blessing

Adding candles to the table will add a glow that brings warmth to your holiday. To incorporate a Thanksgiving touch, create candle holders from pumpkins. Form holes in two small pumpkins using a carving kit and place tall taper candles in each.

While lighting you could offering a short blessing: the traditional yom tov blessing, or after the candles are lit, you could say hamotzi (blessing over the bread) before eating the meal.

Why isn’t Kugel a Thanksgiving Side?

Kugel, a baked casserole, is a traditional Jewish side dish. Whether an apple noodle kugel for Rosh Hashanah or a potato kugel for Pesach, it’s a staple on many families’ holiday tables. A favorite Jewish cooking blog writer of mine, Amy Kritzer, has an amazing sweet potato kugel recipe that she shares on her blog, What Jew Wanna Eat.  It merges the American comfort food with the Jewish comfort food and boy, was it a hit at our Thanksgiving table last year!

See the Good and Do the Good!

Hakarat hatov is the Jewish value of gratitude or recognizing the good. We often save a space on Thanksgiving Day to share our thoughts on what we are grateful for. In my home, before we set the table, I trace my children’s hand on a white tablecloth. In each of the fingers, we write one thing that they are thankful for. We add the date beside the hand, so we can look back and see how hands and gratitude have grown.

To show the gratitude for all that is good in your life, plan to do something good in the world on or near Thanksgiving. Participate in a 5K race for charity on Thanksgiving morning. Invite someone new to your family’s Thanksgiving dinner who may not have another place to go. Participate in the Jewish Connection Network’s Casserole Challenge by baking a casserole or two that will be donated to families in need. Or, donate back to The Associated in honor of #GivingTuesday.

Whether you can implement all these ideas or just one, consider connecting Jewish traditions and values into Thanksgiving. It will give you and your family a more meaningful holiday celebration. Chag Thanksgiving Sameach! Happy Thanksgiving!