It has been almost 100 years since the two holidays shared a common date. The last time two Chanukah candles were lit on Thanksgiving was in 1888 while the first day of Chanukah coincided with Thanksgiving in 1918. According to the Chabad website, American Jews will have to wait until 2070 for it to happen again
In past years, few people have made any connections between the holidays of Chanukah and Thanksgiving. Interestingly, two notable Jewish authors wrote books that highlight some of the parallel ideas associated with the holidays. Both Jewish Children’s books show how immigrant Jewish families struggled with the concept of Thanksgiving. The message can be universally applied to all families who are trying to understand unfamiliar holidays and fit into a new culture.
Rivka’s First Thanksgiving. Written by Elsa Okon Rael and Illustrated by Maryann Kovalski. (2001) A Sidney Taylor Book Award Winner.
Elsa and Maryann take readers back to the Lower East Side during the beginning of the 20th century. The reader immediately encounters an immigrant Jewish family who was unfamiliar with the American traditions associated with Thanksgiving. The parents question whether it is permissible for Jews to celebrate these unusual customs.
The grandmother and her young granddaughter, Rivka, approached the local rabbi. The rabbi decided that it was not permissible for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving. Rivka disagreed with the ruling. She masterfully convinced a group of rabbis that the Pilgrims and the Jews have one thing in common. Both came to America to escape religious intolerance. In America, immigrants were thankful for their new lives and wanted to express their thankfulness by celebrating Thanksgiving.
The book includes a glossary of Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and Russian terms. These terms along with the historical content makes this book better suited for upper elementary or middle school students.
Molly’s Pilgrim. Written by Barbara Cohen z”l (1932-1992) and Illustrated by Daniel Mark Duffy. (Originally published in 1985, revised edition 2005) Barbara Cohen received the Sydney Taylor Body of Work Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries in 1980. This short paperback book (32 pages) has a powerful message that is still relevant decades after its initial publication.
By immigrating to America, Molly and her family escaped the Russian Pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. Her family settled in a town where few Jews lived. Molly was ostracized and teased at school. Her fellow students were unwilling to accept her unfamiliar ways.
Prior to Thanksgiving, the students in Molly’s class were asked to make a Pilgrim doll. Molly’s mom designed a doll that resembled her. Molly was embarrassed and feared that she would stand out again. Fortunately, Molly’s teacher was able to appreciate the symbolism associated with being a Pilgrim. Anyone seeking religious freedom could be considered a Pilgrim.
The teacher also informed the class about the origin of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims borrowed the idea from the Bible. Each fall, Jews celebrate the harvest festival of Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles.
Both of these Jewish children’s books were based on true events. The stories provide useful information regarding the Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America in the latter part of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Like other immigrant groups, the Jews were thankful for their new freedoms and slowly adapted to their new environment. Jewish and non-Jewish children will gain a better understanding of the immigrant experience and the reasons why many people opted to leave their homelands in search of a better life in America. Modern immigrants will be able to relate to what it feels like to be different.
Sandra Bornstein is the author of MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. It is available on Amazon. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons.
The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and a Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.