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Roxane B. Salonen, Published November 22 2013

Faith Conversations: Celebrating 'Thanksgivukkah': Confluence of holidays create an interesting mixture of seasons

Fargo -- It last happened in 1888, and a physicist in New Mexico says it won’t happen again after this year for another 75,000 years.

The crossing of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in 2013 is noteworthy enough that a Massachusetts-based marketing specialist even trademarked a name for it: Thanksgivukkah.

This rare convergence of the American holiday and Jewish celebration has created a stir in some homes and communities across the country that we’ll never again experience, unless we somehow reach the year 81,056.

Bev Jacobson, president of Fargo’s Jewish synagogue, Temple Beth El, says it’s a non-issue for most local Jews.

“It’s nothing more than an interesting coincidence,” she says, since Thanksgiving is a secular holiday and Hanukkah a religion one.

“I have seen some of the stories that are out on this,” Jacobson notes. “People are having a lot of fun with it, and coming up with some creative recipes for the holiday.”

‘Gobble Tov!’

Indeed, in typical capitalistic fashion, products like T-shirts and posters bearing both turkey and menorah symbols are being marketed, and recipes are popping up on blogs and Pinterest to herald the unusual amalgamation – everything from sage-scented matzoh balls to potato latkes with cranberry applesauce.

Thanksgivukkah even has its own Facebook page and Twitter account for the sharing of these palatable possibilities, along with details of various gatherings around the country in conjunction with the one-time-only event.

Amy Jokinen of Fargo, grew up in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota with a father of Scandinavian origin and a mother of Irish-English and German-Jewish descent.

Jokinen says she and her children, Finn, 13, and Nona, 8, are looking forward to the combined holidays, since it won’t happen again in their lifetime, though Finn is less enthusiastic. “He says it is ‘totally bedongling everything … How can we celebrate both at once?’ ” Jokinen says, explaining that “bedongling” apparently means, in youth slang, “messing up.”

As a “mash up of both holidays,” she says, she’ll be making sweet-potato latkes. In addition, the family will add a variation to their tradition of playing Dreidel, a traditional Hanukkah game.

“Instead of shouting ‘gimmel’ when the dreidel lands on gimmel, we will shout ‘gobble.’ ”

And, she adds, the day’s greeting, rather than “Mazel Tov!” will be, “Gobble Tov!”

“Though Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday by any means, unlike Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover,” Jokinen says, “I do find it especially meaningful. Hanukkah’s theme of religious freedom is an American ideal. And it’s a fun holiday to celebrate with kids. Mine look forward to it each year, and it is so amazing to hear them say the blessings in Hebrew that have been said for thousands of years.”

Thanks-giveaway

Jon M. Sweeney, a writer from Ann Arbor, Mich., says he’d like to see more people focusing on gratitude and giving and less on the menu. “It’s a nice story for the lifestyles pages, but it’s not something we have a whole lot of interest in,” he says.

Sweeney, a Christian married to a Reconstructionist Jewish rabbi, also challenges the notion that with Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, there’s one religious holiday and one secular.

While Hanukkah is celebrated in a synagogue, he says, many in the United States see it as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. “You light Hanukkah candles and there’s tinsel with little stars of David, and the gift-giving is called Hanukkah giving, but it all feels kind of the same.”

Having grown tired of the secularized and commercialized aspect of both holidays, he says, his family began a new tradition several years ago that they’ve dubbed “Thanks-giveaway.”

“On the day after Thanksgiving, instead of taking part in Black Friday, and as a way to enter into the upcoming holiday season, we all go through the things we don’t need any more to prepare to give them away,” he says. “It’s a way to focus on the true meaning of the season.”

More than anything, he says, “Thanks-giveaway” is “a way of breaking that consumerism cycle” that has engulfed American culture.

“In our society, we’ve begun to think of the day after Thanksgiving as the beginning of the Christmas season and a time to stay up all night so we can buy the cheapest Blu-ray player as possible,” he says. “And that has nothing to do with the spiritual or religious values of Christmas.”

Digging into history

The Rev. Kurtis Gunwall, vocations director for the Diocese of Fargo, says that when President Lincoln first instituted Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, it was done with the emphasis on giving thanks to God for our blessings.

Specifically, Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

“In that sense, it is meant to be a religious holiday,” he says. “Not by any particular church, but as Christians that’s part of our foundation.”

He adds that the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah is mentioned in the book of Maccabees in Catholic Scripture, and that the offering of Mass on Thanksgiving is an invitation for Christians to come and give thanks. “We should do it every day, but at least that day. Families are together, they’ve got the day off work, so come and thank God for all he has done for us.”

Ted Kleiman, a recently retired pediatrician of 40 years, has been part of Temple Beth El since 1995 and enjoys history and Jewish study. But in his 68 years, he says, he doesn’t remember discussing the similarities of Jewish customs with the Thanksgiving holiday, until recently.

What got his attention was seeing the “menurkey” symbol designed by a 9-year-old to symbolize the crossing of the turkey and menorah.

“He sold 1,500 of them,” Kleiman says. “It’s just a silly thing as people go on about the non-relationship, but it does have some cleverness.”

But Kleiman says the chatter got him thinking about the origins of Thanksgiving, and whether Lincoln, who had some Jewish advisers, may have thought about the Jewish celebration of Sukkot, a festival of gratitude for the harvest celebrated in early fall, when contemplating the new holiday.

“Was Lincoln thinking of this? I have no idea, but it’s an interesting piece,” he says. “I just know Lincoln established it during the Civil War as a method of thanksgiving and healing, which is really analogous with the Sukkot, so there is some synchronicity there.”

Kleiman says the local community gathers annually for Hanukkah to share a traditional meal, including a piece drawn from their northern European German heritage, the potato latke.

“The theoretical concept is that frying the potatoes in oil reminds us of the miracle of Hanukkah, how after the temple was defiled, there was only a tiny amount of oil to sanctify it, and it lasted eight days,” he says. “That’s the story, anyway. Is it true or not? Historical myth is sometimes stranger than fiction.”