In addition to mashed potatoes, sweet peas and apple pie, Jewish families will serve a big helping of history on Thanksgiving.
Hanukkah, the celebrated season of light, begins Wednesday night — the eve of autumn’s top family holiday, Thanksgiving. Jews will light menorahs during a time that has always been reserved for turkey, parades and football games. It’s the first time the convergence has occurred since 1888.
“One measure of its significance for American Jews is that these are big holidays,” said Rabbi Ted Midlarsky Lichtenfeld of Congregation Agudat Achim in Niskayuna. “Hanukkah is an extremely observed holiday among American Jews and Thanksgiving is a beloved American holiday.
“The fact that this is the only time since Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday that it’s going to happen and math people tell us that it’s not going to happen for another 75,000 years, . . . this confluence for American Jews is of great interest and significance.”
The convergence is due to calendar dates. Modern Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November — the latest it can be is Nov. 28. The earliest date for the first full day of Hanukkah is also Nov. 28.
According to Jewish scholars from the UJA-Federation of New York, a group that supports Jewish life and organizations, the Thanksgiving-Hanukkah double has never happened before, because Hanukkah last fell on the fourth Thursday in November in 1861 — two years before Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday.
Chabad.org, however, says the two holidays also overlapped in 1888 and 1918, well after Thanksgiving was celebrated nationwide.
Both organizations take issue with the idea that the convergence won’t happen again for 75,000 years: They name 2070 as the next overlap.
“Analysis of the Gregorian and Jewish calendars indicates the first night of Hanukkah will correspond with Thanksgiving in the years 2070 and 2165 — much sooner than 79811,” Rabbi Michael Paley, the UJA’s scholar-in-residence, says on the UJA website.
The so-called “Thanksgivukkah” provides a convenience factor. Family members who could attend Thanksgiving gatherings — but not Hanukkah events — will be able to make both for 2013. And vice versa.
People will observe the team-up with food. Latkes — potato pancakes — and jelly doughnuts are traditional Hanukkah foods that will show up on Thanksgiving tables. people are using “menurkeys,” menorahs shaped like turkeys, to brighten both holidays.
“It actually works out fairly well because they’re both family-oriented holidays,” Lichtenfeld said. “In my family, we’ll be at my parents for Thanksgiving. The main ritual of Hanukkah is lighting the menorah every night, so on Thanksgiving night, we’ll have our Thanksgiving dinner and right before or right after we’ll light Hanukkah candles.”
Usually, members of the Jewish faith must contend with Hanukkah’s close proximity to Christmas. With the early Hanukkah arrival this year, the Christmas connection is out.
“Some Jews like it when Hanukkah is close to Christmas, celebrating a holiday at the same time the American majority is,” Lichtenfeld said. “In my family, we kind of like it when it’s separated. It draws more attention to Hanukkah.”
Lichtenfeld said the two holidays have one major similarity.
“Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are linked in the fact they both commemorate religious freedom,” he said. “Hanukkah celebrates the victory of Jews to achieve independence for ancient Judea, when the Greek leadership had banned Jewish observance. Jews fought for our right to be Jews. And Thanksgiving commemorates the Pilgrims, the puritan separatists who were searching for religious freedom which they were not getting under the English crown.”
Unusual and fun
Barbara Wasser, a member of the Agudat Achim congregation, is impressed by the numbers that will come with next week’s holidays.
“It won’t happen again, certainly in our lifetime,” she said.
The first menorah candle will be lit Wednesday night. The second will catch fire on Thursday, Wasser said, and should be a thrill for the match holder. “It will be totally unusual lighting the candles at Thanksgiving, and kind of fun.”
Rabbi Moshe Mirsky of Congregation Beth Israel in Schenectady said there are easy ways to combine both holidays.
“They can start by lighting a menorah, singing a particular song of praise for Hanukkah and then give a general prayer for Thanksgiving as well, then eat turkey — the things that are most often focused on are the dietary things,” he said.
Giving thanks is nothing new for followers of Orthodox Judaism. “We do things every single day to thank God,” Mirsky said, adding that Jews can give thanks for their faith and for being part of the United States.
Like Lichtenfeld, Mirsky believes the Hanukkah-Thanksgiving combine can offer a quick lesson to young people.
“It’s a chance to tell people this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Mirsky said. “Let’s make it special.”