November 25, 2008
Every year around this time, the American Jewish Committee sponsors interfaith events, based on their 2001 publication “America’s Table: A Thanksgiving Haggadah.” The contents are modeled on the Passover seder, with prayers, readings, and rituals.
The problem is that while these events promote fellowship and tolerance, they don’t fully convey the seder experience for a non-Jewish audience. That’s why I’ve written “Company’s Coming: A Thanksgiving Haggada for Non-Jews and Other Gentiles.” Some excerpts:
The Table: The Thanksgiving table is set with traditional ritual objects, including your best china, a paper turkey made by one of the children, and an animal-shaped soup tureen. According to tradition, the tureen is hideously ugly and is being brought out on this day because the aunt who gave it to you is invited to dinner.
Welcoming the Guests: As the guests gather in the front hall, the youngest child no longer in diapers is asked to take their coats and put them in an upstairs bedroom. Parents are to recite the age-old admonition, “And place them nicely — don’t just throw them.”
The Blessing: Before the meal, two toasts are recited: The first, by the teenagers, is mocking and inappropriate; the second, thanking God, is self-conscious and slightly uncomfortable for everyone at the table. (This is in contrast to the closing blessing, said with deep feeling by the host and hostess: “Thank God we don’t have to do this again for another year.”)
The Bitter Herb: No one knows the origins of this ancient custom, but it involves keeping the liquor away from your angriest guest. In some families he is named “Herb”; in others it is Morris or Aunt Faye.
The Four Questions: No Thanksgiving seder is complete without these timeless queries.
- Why is my plate different from everyone else’s plate?
- Is there gluten in the stuffing?
- What’s the score?
- What were you thinking when you invited Aunt Faye?
The Four Answers: The adults take turns answering the questions, for as the Talmud says, “Who is the wise person? The one who speaks louder than everyone else.”
- “I ran out of the good china. Your turkey will taste the same on a paper plate. Yes it will. Oh for God’s sake — Sari, will you change with Daniel?”
- “The casserole and the green beans don’t have any nuts. There may be soy in the salad dressing. The kugel has eggs — can you eat eggs?”
- “Since Mr. Prince Charming would rather watch a football game than have dinner with his family once a year, let’s ask him. Herb, what’s the score?”
- “She joking, Aunt Faye. You know Ruth, always a joker.”
The Thanksgiving Story: The guests take turns reciting the tale of the first Thanksgiving. Since no one actually remembers the story, guests are encouraged to contribute whatever hazy memories they may have from elementary school, touching on the following points:
The Pilgrims left England on the Mayflower so they could worship freely in America. Some of the famous passengers included Miles Standish, Priscilla Mullins, John Alden, and Ichabod Crane. They landed at Plymouth Rock. It was a bitter cold winter. They met a kind Indian — Squanto, or maybe Pocahontas. One of those. The Indian helped them plant their first corn crop using fish. Then they had a big feast to thank the Indians. No, I don’t know if the corn tasted like fish. I don’t know why people need belt buckles on their hats. Yes, I’m pretty sure about Ichabod Crane. We’re getting off the point here. The point is we have a feast to remember the brave Pilgrims who settled Plymouth.
The Rebuttal: At this point, it is customary for someone to rebut the Thanksgiving story. Perhaps it is Cousin Leora, home from Brandeis, who reminds the guests that Thanksgiving actually commemorates the genocide of the Indians. Or maybe Uncle Stan will describe the Pilgrims as “anti-Semitten.” Either rebuttal is acceptable.
The Meal: Before the eating of the festive meal comes the carving of the oversized turkey. Like Thanksgiving itself, this is an act begun in a spirit of great enthusiasm but, after 30 minutes or so with a too-dull knife and confusion about the turkey’s anatomy, ends with muttered curses and a platter of torn and mangled bird flesh. Bon appetit!
Light and Dark: Our monotheistic tradition is one of separation: day from night, kosher from non-kosher, Lewis from Martin. So it is with the white meat from the dark. Whosoever shall choose the dark meat shall choose the dark meat, and whosoever shall choose the white meat will probably need extra gravy. Ken y’hi ratzon.
Dessert: Unusual for a carefully structured seder, the Thanksgiving dessert has no formal ritual requirements. In some homes, however, the men shall recline to one side, loosen their belt buckles, and groan. Others groan first, then loosen their belt buckles. Consult your local rabbi.
The Conclusion: The guests recite, “The Thanksgiving seder is concluded, according to each detail with all its laws and customs. As we have been privileged to celebrate this seder, so may we face minimal traffic on the Hudson River crossings. And we say together: Next year at someone else’s house!”