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Table talk for a Jewish Thanksgiving
November 24th, 2009
Los Angeles (JTA) — When it’s time to talk turkey, what do Jews have to say?
There is little Jewish liturgy for Thanksgiving dinner; not even seconds. You could say ha’motze, the blessing over the bread, and after the pie sing Birkat Ha’Mazon, thanking the Eternal Thanksgiving-giver for the food you ate.
You also could sit at the Thanksgiving table, throw the dice and blurt out one of those conversation starters that at first causes a lot of throat clearing and foot shuffling, earning you peeved looks from your host — but has the potential of stimulating an intellectual appetite or two.
Here’s my modest starter: On Thanksgiving, what do Jews have to be thankful for?
We are thankful for our families, homes and health; maybe even a national health plan.
We are thankful for all that. But there’s more, isn’t there?
So, Jewish America, I am sitting at the Thanksgiving table with all of you, thanks for the invite, and the question’s been asked. Considering it’s my question, you would think that I could nail the answer.
I want to say as a Jew what I’m thankful for, but I can’t find the words.
Complete silence. Not everyone at the table is Jewishly involved, and I’ve taken what basically is a national nonsectarian meal and turned it into a Jewish conversation.
With no postmodern irony or sarcasm, I said it because I’m really thankful that’s who I am. Among the morning blessings, Jews say “praised is God who has made me a Jew."
So why can’t I say it at the Thanksgiving table?
“Shouldn’t the question really be,” a teacher from Binghamton, N.Y., says, “on Thanksgiving, what do people have to be thankful for?”
“No,” I respond, working the peas around in my plate. “Let’s slice this turkey; what do Jews have to be thankful for?”
“Not the turkey,” says a woman from Philly. “I am definitely not giving thanks for the turkey. I’m a vegan.”
“Not necessary,” I answer. “There’s no special blessing, no bracha for poultry, meat or fish.”
“A bracha is one of those “baruch atah” things,” I add, seeing a couple of quizzical looks at the table. “It's a Jewish formula for praising and giving thanks; acknowledging God’s presence in the world. They are said over different types of food and drink, when experiencing something exceptional, and when fulfilling a commandment.”
“Look who went to Hebrew High,” a teacher from Phoenix comments.
A software salesman from Seattle joins the conversation.
“I’m thankful I have a job,” he says. “Is there a bracha for when I make a sale?”
“In the birkat ha’mazon, there’s a blessing for parnasah, sustenance,” a woman from Los Angeles responds, adding that “I’m very thankful to my iPhone for that answer.”
“How about a bracha for hangovers?” a college student from Queens asks.
“Yes, there’s one,” the iPhoner responds. “There’s a prayer particularly good for this time, called Modeh Ani, of literally having your soul returned to you — though you may not feel that way. The prayer acknowledges the miracle of being alive every day.”
“Is there a bracha over pain, ignorance, hunger?” asks the table skeptic from Berkeley waving his fork.
“Nobody blesses that,” I respond. “But there is a prayer for teachers, students and study, Kaddish d’Rabanan; another to help the needy, Ozer Dalim; and a Mi Shebeirach, a blessing to bring healing and restore to health.”
“I’m thankful for getting engaged,” a guy from Florida says. “At our wedding, friends and family are going to recite seven blessings. Our rabbi told us that the blessings connect us to the lives of all those Jews who were married before us.”
“In the Jews by choice class I took,” he continued, “I found there’s a bracha upon seeing a rainbow, hearing thunder, getting good news and bad. Traditionally, Jews say 100 blessings every day.”
“Many brachot are included in the day’s three prayer services,” I add. “Whether you pray them or not, the idea of 100 blessings does get you to look for the positive — definitely a counter-cultural mind-set.”
Then finally, just as the turkey platter was passed to me, I had the answer to my original question — as a Jew I’m thankful for all this:
Shalom bayit — peace in my house — the thoughtfulness, respect and love there. For books, especially Jewish friends with books. For herring of any kind — it’s proof of intelligent design.
I'm thankful for a roof over our heads and the doorposts as well; when Jehovah Witnesses come to the door I explain expansively about my mezuzah. That an Israeli player made the NBA. That all our cars started and brought us back to the table safely to say Shehecheyanu for another year.
And for Thanksgiving guests, there’s one more blessing: In Birchat Ha’Mazon, there’s a bracha for eating at another’s table. That one counts for plenty.
Edmon J. Rodman is JTA columnist writing on Jewish life from Los Angeles.