As a progressive in 2020, you’d have to be willfully ignorant to think that there are no problems with Thanksgiving. But unlike, say, the former Columbus Day, this holiday isn’t just a day off. For a lot of Americans, myself included, this day has been one of the most important yearly events of family gathering for their entire lives. Is there a way to keep that going, or should we let Thanksgiving retire?
As non-practicing Ashkenazi Jews with a strong immigrant identity, my family’s only holiday for my entire young life was Thanksgiving. We never talked about it as part of the foundation myth of America. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t skeptical about the “first Thanksgiving”. It was just our chance to get together as a family. And even though no one ever said so, I always got the sense that Thanksgiving was, for us, a celebration of getting to live in America.
To me, a traditional Thanksgiving meal had turkey, yes, but it didn’t have stuffing. It also had brisket, potato kugel, matzo ball soup, and tzimmes. Essentially, Thanksgiving in my family was actually Rosh Hashanah plus a turkey. And that makes a lot of sense. Passover is about leaving the land of slavery and heading out for the Promised Land. And for Jews like my grandmother and my dad, the children of Eastern European immigrants, the US was the Promised Land. Like proper immigrants, we didn’t celebrate the holiday the way we were supposed to. We didn’t go around the table and say what we were thankful for, and we didn’t watch football. We played Risk, ate the meal, and had coffee and seven layer cake. We celebrated my oldest brother’s birthday, which usually falls in the same week.
For me it was a chance to learn about my family. I took the opportunity of going to my grandmother’s house to go diving in her closet, my first archaeological site. I excavated my mom’s childhood in forgotten fancy dresses and Beatles albums. I once found an old manual compact camera. As I got older, I would spend a few days with my grandmother ahead of the meal, ostensibly to help her cook, but also to learn more about her. Since my aunt would fly in from whatever far away place she was living in, it was also my only real time to get to know her. And one year it gave me the time to meet my great uncle, who died soon after. It was also just the holiday that marked the beginning of winter. Sometimes we went on our first ski trip of the year the next day, back when it still got cold enough to ski in November.
Like a lot of family traditions championed by one relative, Thanksgiving changed when my grandmother died. We had a hard time getting everyone together anymore. It got harder to sit at the table as a family with my mom’s cousins, who were extremely vocally conservative. My cousin broke off to have the holiday with his wife’s family, and my aunt followed them. And my dad similarly started celebrating with his wife’s family. With only my immediate family (still a big group), we added an extra event on Sunday, a classic New York brunch (bagels and lox, plus cake) for my mom’s extended family and my dad, but that event became harder to hold onto as Sunday became a more necessary travel day. Eventually, my mom started lobbying for Passover in addition to Thanksgiving, and at this juncture, it might just replace it.
Last year was the first Thanksgiving I ever missed. Stuck at the airport for hours with two increasingly fussy toddlers for a redeye flight, my husband and I were counting down how many hours we would actually get in New York before our flight home. When the flight was cancelled, we gave up and went home, and I spent the weekend moping. It wasn’t just the meal I was missing. It was my only chance to see New York and all the people in my life there for over a year. At this point, I haven’t been to New York since January of 2019. Maybe I’ll get to go back for my graduation in April, depending on how the pandemic progresses. This year, 3,000 miles from my birth family, I’ll still get a meal, but it will be with my husband’s clan, a true break in tradition for me.
As Thanksgiving becomes less of a fixture in my life, it becomes easier to see the harm in the holiday. To see how the mythology of a peaceful meeting is meant to cover up a genocide. To see how even my family’s immigrant story, which I was raised to believe was irrelevant to all the harm that white Europeans did before we got here, is an elision of a violent land grab. Growing up in New York, Native Americans were always talked of in the past tense. It was hard to connect this group that seemed to have faded away to a real community that was struggling to survive in the present. As my life took me westward, and my studies exposed me to both more activism and more American history, my understanding of Native Americans jolted into a new place.
Today, I live in the Bay Area, on Ohlone land. I live in a town that was carved out of that land as a pension plan for a Spanish soldier. Ohlone activism in my area focuses on the cause of rematriation, returning the land to the indigenous people from whom it was stolen, both for the good of the people and the good of the land. Like the case for reparations to the descendants of the enslaved, rematriation is an idea that seems impractical in the abstract but has already been coopted by white people in practice. In 2003, the state of California officially obtained the title for 16,500 acres of salt ponds from the defunct Cargill Salt company in order to convert formerly industrial wetlands into nature reserves. Over on my side of the Bay, an industrial landfill and oyster bed have been converted into recreational parks. These projects are the mutual culmination of industrial death with corporate environmentalism. And while they are certainly beneficial, they are a far cry from what needs to be done environmentally, socially, and economically in this area. Native-led organizations like Sogorea Te’ Land Trust combine community care and sustainable land use to repair the damage that has been done both socially and environmentally, and the product is a lot more than just a park, as wonderful as those are. The relative obscurity of organizations like this is a direct product of mythologies like the “first Thanksgiving”. It takes too many steps to get from the image of Squanto to the women behind Sogorea Te’ for most well-meaning white people to make it the whole way.
Earlier this week I got an email asking me to rethink Thanksgiving with an eye toward racial justice. It offered me the option to spend Thursday watching the movie “Invasion”, which is about what some Native Americans refer to as the National Day of Mourning, and then joining a discussion about the issues. I am struggling with the fact that this is where my wokeness stops. I am not an activist, and I have a hard time joining in events of collective action. I support this event. You should go. I should go. But right now I can’t make myself prioritize it. Even though Thanksgiving means so much less to me now than it used to, I’m not going to take the time out of my day for it. And I know that’s exactly the barrier to social justice gains in our country. I agree with a cause, I support its actions, but I let my habits prevent me from joining in. That’s my problem, and I can’t let my inaction feed others’. I can see, though, what a big impact it has had on my views and the intensity of my feelings to subscribe to activist mailing lists. If you also want to learn more about Native American rights and actions in your area, I encourage you to sign up for the Indigenous Solidarity Network list. This Thanksgiving is probably just a meal, but at least I’ll be eating with my eyes open.