May 18, 2024
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May 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Some woman came over to my mother at a bank once, and asked, “Do Jews celebrate Thanksgiving?”

My mother said, “Some do; some don’t. We don’t.”

“You’re so lucky!” the woman said. “You don’t have to cook!”

Nevertheless, Thanksgiving is a time when people all over the country get together to celebrate things like religious freedom and the fact that a group of long-gone Pilgrims stopped dying except at the normal rate. Because if not for those Pilgrims, we wouldn’t have a country, unless you count all the explorers who settled in more tropical regions, like Manhattan.

The basic story involves a group of people called the Pilgrims, who were looking to get out of England so they could have more religious freedom. Eventually, they were approached by the London Company, who told them that if they went, they could catch animals and trade furs.

For money. Not for other furs.

They set sail on two ships. One of those ships was called the Speedwell, which was so called because it began to leak almost immediately after they left the dock. So everyone went back to England, where they all squished onto their other boat—the Mayflower, which is a pretty name for a hundred-foot boat that held 132 people plus goats, birds and dogs for over two months. It did not smell like a Mayflower.

They finally left England in September 1620, and they landed at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in November, which is not the prettiest time to go to Cape Cod. And they were pretty upset, because they were supposed to be aiming for Virginia.

But what do you want? There was no GPS. There were paper maps, but they lost those when the goats got loose.

Anyway, the Pilgrims landed in New England right before the winter, with no food, no supplies and no shelter. By the end of the first winter, there were 53 people left. They had better luck during the summer, though.

In March, they happened to luck into a Native American named “Squanto,” who happened to know English because he was once kidnapped and brought to England as a slave, at which point he escaped and made his way back to America, only to find that his tribe had been wiped out by a plague brought over by the people who’d kidnapped him, so he had to join another tribe, which, as it turned out, was the very same tribe the settlers ran into! Talk about hashgacha pratis! Not that he was sore.

And boy did Squanto come in handy. According to my research, he taught them:

  1. How to plant corn. (Corn is hard. What part do you even plant?)
  2. How to avoid plants that were poisonous. (“It’s not like they chase you,” he said.)
  3. How to use alewives as fertilizer for their crops.
  4. That alewives are a kind of herring, not a kind of wives.
  5. How to catch local animals such as turkeys, which are exactly like chickens, but terrifying. Especially during kaparos.

So I don’t know what the settlers were thinking. It’s like they didn’t even bring anyone over who had any basic survival skills. They didn’t know how to catch animals? Weren’t they there to trade furs? It’s like the colonists were actively trying to kill themselves.

But despite everyone dying, the Pilgrims decided to celebrate, because if history teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t live in the past.

So in the fall of 1621, they started preparing a festival. They don’t remember when they celebrated it, but they know it was on a Thursday. They didn’t even know it was an official Thanksgiving. They thought it was just a fall harvest festival, which is something that people had been doing for thousands of years, which is when you bring all your crops in from the field, and then you try to eat them all at once before they go bad. The first actual “Thanksgiving” meal that they had was two years later, in 1623, after it didn’t rain for a while, and then it did. They had a Thanksgiving Day feast, in the rain. People died. So what people think is Thanksgiving is actually a composite of two events.

In fact, on the first Thanksgiving or whatever, they weren’t even going to invite the Native Americans, because they had to draw the line on the guest list somewhere. But then the Native Americans heard gunfire, so they ran in with all their weapons, and the Pilgrims were like, “No, no, we’re getting ready for our feast. We’re hunting corn.”

So now the Pilgrims had to invite them. And Squanto, so he could teach them how to cook.

After the feast, everyone pretty much forgot about it, until 1863, when Lincoln decided to institute the holiday on the last day in November to try to avoid the Civil War. After all, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans ate together, and they didn’t kill each other that much for at least the next 50 years.

It didn’t work. Right after the holiday, everyone ran out and started killing each other over reasonably priced gift items.

Then, in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt decided to move the holiday to a randomly moving day in November, so he could have a long weekend.

So in summary, Thanksgiving was established in both 1863 and 1939 to commemorate an event that didn’t actually happen in 1621, but sort of happened in 1623 based on a misunderstanding. Though you’ve got to say that as far as secular holidays go, it’s not the worst reason to have one. It’s better than celebrating groundhogs. It’s actually sitting around a table and being thankful for the things you have, until about 6:00, when you run out to the store to buy more things.

Or, if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, you can at least be thankful that you don’t have to cook.

By Mordechai Schmutter

 Mordechai Schmutter is a freelance writer and a humor columnist for Hamodia, The Jewish Press and, among others. He also has five books out and does stand-up comedy. You can contact him at [email protected].


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