Holiday overlap spurs 'Thanksgivukkah'

Jewish congregation makes most of one-in-many-lifetimes event

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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On the Web:

Facebook page created by the founder of "Thanksgivukkah"

The "Ballad of Thanksgivukkah" as performed by the Kehillah Schechter Academy in Norwood, Mass.

Light the candles and pass the white meat. Spin the dreidel and have at the cranberry sauce. Don your yarmulke, dip your crunchy latke in the creamy onion dip and catch some football.

Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, a modern American national holiday, and it's also the first full day of Hanukkah, an ancient Hebrew religious one. Thanks to the vagaries of modern Gregorian and ancient Hebrew calendars, the two holidays have lined up only for the second time ever, and for what's just about the last time ever, too — as far as we're concerned.

The next time Hanukkah and Thanksgiving overlap in this way will be in the year 79,043. The first time was in 1888. That was 25 years after Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, in 1863.

The joyous Jewish holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the unlikely victory of a small band of Maccabees over the Syrian King Antioch in the year 165 B.C., the subsequent rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and, chiefly, the miracle that occurred during that rededication, as one night's worth of oil burned for eight nights. Because of that, Hanukkah is known as the "festival of lights" and involves lighting a menorah candle on each of the eight nights of the holiday — plus a ninth central candle.

Thanksgiving, meanwhile, grew from many prayerful harvest celebrations held all over the New World across several centuries. Any claim that a 1621 gathering in Plymouth, Mass., was the "First Thanskgiving" is more the stuff of legends than anything concrete — but don't tell a zillion American schoolchildren who've worn turkey hats and feathers while performing a ritual of politeness.

The real version would have had deer meat and drunkenness against a backdrop of harsh winter and disease that wiped out many colonists and many more Wampanoag Indians — who did not wear feathers on their heads or live in tipis, by the way.

Holiday observances tend to mash up factual beginnings, fanciful legends and deep feelings. Clark County Jews say there's nothing more natural than pulling together two holidays that are all about joy, celebration and gratitude for the good things in life.

"Commemorating a historical event is not just about the history, but about applying their message and meaning to the present," said the Rabbi Shmulik Greenberg of the Chabad Jewish Center in Brush Prairie. "Celebrating these two holidays are reminders that we each have our personal moments of salvation and reasons to express gratitude."

Light and life

Two holidays just means twice the fun, Wendy Mikota said.

"Hannukah is really a holiday of light," said Mikota, who lives in Felida and will welcome her grandchildren and their parents for a big family meal today. "The overlap will be fun. Anytime we can get together as a family and enjoy everyone's company … it just gives us one more thing to be grateful for."

"Hannukah is all about the light, the light you can shine on others and the light they shine on you," Jaime Miller said. "And at Thanksgiving, you go around the table and say what brings joy into our lives. That's not much different."

Miller's mother in law, Lynn, said modern American Jews "have so much to be thankful for, living in the U.S.A. and enjoying unprecedented freedom. Jews have been so oppressed throughout history." On a personal level, she added: "Our family has had a rough time over the past year. We lost a baby at 11 months" in October 2012, she said. "It was a year to heal and there's a new baby in the family now. We are very thankful for him."

Daughter-in-law Jaime, who was raised by a Baptist and a Catholic, married Miller's observantly Jewish son. She said she has become her family's chief religious educator — learning lots about Judaism in order to be able to pass it along to her children.

"It's important to me that my kids know every aspect of what makes them who they are," she said. "We talk about everything that makes up our crazy religious background. We've got a lot to educate our kids about."

The children, 12-year-old Alex and 10-year-old Gillian, must have a pretty broad perspective on faith, from Jewish observances at home and at the Chabad Jewish Center to attending Young Life, an Evangelical Christian summer camp.

"My goal is to open their eyes. There's a lot out there," Miller said.

Food and gifts

Jews make up a tiny fraction of Clark County: about 3,000 people, according to a recent survey by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.

But growing up Jewish in Vancouver rarely meant feeling different or uncomfortable for Mikota, 64 — except for the occasional Christian holiday that's so mainstream, it felt to her like the whole world belonged to others.

"I remember on Easter, our dad said, 'You kids stay in the yard today. Other people are celebrating Easter and we're not. So just stay at home.' I always wondered about that," Mikota said.

But that's as far as it went. Mostly she recalls Jewish merchants dominating downtown, and several Jewish families "schlepping" down to Portland together on Sunday mornings for services and language lessons. She remembers it as a happy, connected time.

If there's anything she's less than happy about now, she said, it's the way modern Hanukkah celebrants may feel compelled to mimic Christmas in a crucial respect: the mandatory spending on an airlift of consumer products. That's exacerbated by the fact that the two holidays almost always share the month of December, and the frenzy of advertising just cannot be avoided, she said.

Nontheless, Mikota said: "We don't do the electronics, we don't do all those big things. I just buy eight little things, one for each day. It's not the idea of how big a gift but that we all get together and have another reason to celebrate."

Ditto for the extended Miller family, Lynn said. The real treat is all the girls in the family getting together the day before to cook, she said.

What's it going to be this year? Well, mostly the traditional Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, everybody contacted for this story said.

Plus, of course, latkes. Those are potato pancakes fried up in oil. Everybody who's celebrating the joint holiday is adding these ancient treats to their traditional turkey menu. There'll be doughnuts, too, and other foods fried or baked in oil. That's to commemorate the tiny flask of oil that miraculously lasted eight days when the Jews were desperate. To add a little sweetness, there'll be raisins and sprinkles, too.

With Christmas and Hanukkah separated this year, Lynn Miller said: "Maybe some Jewish people who are not so religious are being made more aware of Hanukkah this year. It can be more of its own holiday."

More results of the modern American mash-up of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah: a one-time name, "Thanksgivukkah," was trademarked by a Massachusetts mom who then worked with an online retailer to offer a line of souvenirs including greeting cards and T-shirts. The Massachusetts school where the whole buzz reportedly got started, Kehillah Schechter Academy in Norwood, has filmed and posted its own music video, "The Ballad of Thanksgivukkah."