With so many of us still reeling from what I called PESD (Post-Election Stress Disorder), I’m grateful that Thanksgiving is just around the corner. While it’s not a Jewish holiday, I’ve always felt a strong Jewish connection to Thanksgiving. And this year, I think it’s more important than ever that I incorporate some Jewish elements into our Thanksgiving celebration for my almost 5-year-old son to see. If you’re looking to do the same, here are three easy ways to get started:
1. Dive into the Jewish concept of being thankful
My son has been taught to recite the Modeh Ani prayer every morning, which is a prayer of gratitude whose name translates to “I am thankful.” Traditionally, it’s the first prayer you’re supposed to say upon waking up in the morning. (For an awesome musical rendition of the Modeh Ani, check out this video.) When we first started doing it, I’d stop and explain what the words mean. But when we’re deep in the throes of the morning rush and I’m scrambling to get my son and twin daughters dressed, fed, and out the door, it’s not always feasible to stop and dissect what I consider to be one of the most important morning prayers.
That’s why I think Thanksgiving offers the perfect opportunity to discuss the Jewish concept of being thankful. As you sit around the dinner table this year sharing in whatever culinary delights you and your guests whip up, have everyone take a turn at his or her own Modeh Ani prayer. Whatever it is you’re particularly thankful for at that moment, say it out loud, thank God for it in front of your children, and encourage your kids to do the same. (Oh, and don’t get discouraged if the thing they’re most thankful for is a new toy or that apple pie that’s sitting on the counter for dessert. I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing wrong with allowing young children to be grateful for the simpler things in life.)
2. Say a blessing before and after you eat
Even if you don’t normally recite a blessing before you eat or read the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) once you’ve finished dining, do it this one time. If you don’t speak or understand Hebrew, get your hands on the English version and sing or read it with your kids. While the Modeh Ani exercise focuses more on general thankfulness, the Birkat Hamazon is a specific way of showing our gratitude for food—food that sustains us and brings us together on Thanksgiving, Shabbat, and other such positive occasions.
3. Give tzedakah
In my house, we have a practice of giving tzedakah (charity) before lighting the Shabbat candles every week. But to me, Thanksgiving isn’t just about being grateful for what we have; it’s about giving back to those in need. By encouraging your kids to give to those who aren’t as fortunate to have a festive meal, you can highlight the meaning of Thanksgiving while incorporating a key Jewish practice.
If dropping coins into a tzedakah box doesn’t strike you or your kids as super meaningful, consider another form of charity that day. Volunteer with your (older) kids at a local soup kitchen, or invite an elderly neighbor without family to join you at your dinner table. There are so many ways to use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to be charitable, so don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
What tips do you have for a more Jewish Thanksgiving?