Some Thanksgiving Thoughts

November 21, 2016

Rachel Martin wrapped up several years as the host of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday on November 20. She closed out her time on the show with the following words:

When I was young, I wanted to be a cantor. It didn’t matter that I was a Presbyterian girl from Idaho. I saw Neil Diamond in the movie “The Jazz Singer,” and that was it. I wanted to grow up and be a cantor. I didn’t know what those prayers meant. I did not understand Hebrew. I just wanted to learn what it was all about. And that started something for me – asking questions about people who weren’t like me, who came from different backgrounds and different experiences. It is a big part of why I became a journalist.

Ms. Martin wrapped up with a portion of America, written and sung by Neil Diamond for The Jazz Singer. For those who aren’t familiar with The Jazz Singer, the movie tells the story of a young Jewish man who makes his way in the music world, defying his cantor father. In the first version—which was, in 1927, the first talkie—Al Jolson also played a cantor’s son, rebelling. (Both Mr. Jolson and Mr. Diamond were cantors’ sons.)

So, here’s this Presbyterian young woman from Idaho—the seventh least diverse state in the nation, presently—gaining a career and a worldview from a remake of a movie in which both stars are first generation Jewish Americans, playing characters who want to assimilate. Become Americans. Leave the past behind.

It’s the Thanksgiving season. Truth be told, it’s more like a week now, beginning a few days before the fourth Thursday in November—when everyone shops for turkeys, etc.—and ending when the Black Friday specials appear on the Internet. Shopping aside, let’s not forget the fact that, while America includes borders and all that, it’s an idea, too.

People have showed up on our national borders since the 17th century. English, Irish, Italian, Scandinavian, German, Chinese, Japanese, and Eastern European, to name but a few. America has welcomed all of us, albeit not always happily. (Two thoughts: First, Africans arrived here, not by choice. Original sin, I believes, is the correct term. Second, my peeps were Eastern European Jews, and among my friends / readers are people whose ancestors—mostly German Jews—wished on many levels that my kind would stay in the Old Country. Alas, they stepped up, looking after us and helping us integrate ourselves into the America we craved.)

Why did we come? Opportunity. Freedom. Betterment. Our people all wanted the same thing people want today, everywhere. A chance.

Thanksgiving is all about looking out for the strangers in our midst. There’s no other holiday—maybe Passover, but for Jews only—in which we worry more about people being alone. But we should all recall the fact that, from the folks whose presence gave Native Americans an opportunity to make a feast—some payback, huh?—onward, we have all been strangers for at least a little while.*

Let’s remember the fact that we are the most diverse nation this Third Rock from the Sun has ever seen. Let’s revel in it. Learn from other cultures. Broaden our horizons. Eat the hummus (but not the Sabra, right now.) Thank the Lord—or whomever—that we live in a society in which peoples’ rights matter.

Finally, I know turkey is an American tradition. Truth be told, I don’t like turkey. Not even a little!!! I ate it for decades anyway. My dear, departed mom complained, on the one or two occasions when Ms. J or I got a chance to “do” Thanksgiving, that we didn’t do it the “regular way,” which was her way! (Yes, “our way” did include a big, dead bird.) Anyway, whether you eat turkey or prime rib, salmon, or veggies, go for it, and enjoy! Just, please, don’t forget about how those who came before us welcomed us as hungry strangers.

*In this season / week, in which we focus on our many blessings, we can never forget those whose ancestors arrived here not by choice. Yes, at some point life marches on, but I’m not in a big old hurry to say “Get over slavery,” for I haven’t walked in their shoes. Have you?


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