The first and probably only Thanksgivukkah ever

English: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymo...

English: “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Hanukkah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When, in 1621 “the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast”the first celebration of Thanksgiving was inaugurated. Then, in 1863, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day be observed ever November. The modern day Thanksgiving holiday on the fourth Thursday of November was signed into law by FDR on November 26, 1941 and Americans of all faiths (or none) have followed that tradition to the present.

In December, Christians observe Christmas holiday – a religious holiday which has become so secular that it has lost its Christian flavor. Jews also observe the festival of Hanukkah in December which is not mandated in the Bible. Nevertheless, Hanukkah commemorates the re dedication of the Temple after the defeat of the Hellenists by the Maccabees.

Falling in December as they do, and in some years very close to each other, Hanukkah and Christmas have often competed for the loyalty of the American secularists as well as Jews and Christians who have family members in both faiths. But this year, the story is about Thanksgiving and Hanukkah falling on the same date, November 28, for the first time since the beginning of Thanksgiving and not to happen again for – some people are saying – perhaps a thousand years?

This is special, and the term Thanksgivukkah has already been coined for the holiday. So what can we or should we expect?

Even though Thanksgiving is rooted in spirituality – in that it is virtuous to be thankful at all times, and there are numerous biblical precepts for thanksgiving  – our modern observance has shifted from thanksgiving for a harvest to simply a time of celebration and fellowship. The focus today is families coming together to celebrate, without any specifics.

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is characterized by what some may call goofiness, that is, making fun and having a good time. Actually, there is nothing goofy about the Menorah which is a demonstration of the miracle that a one day supply of oil managed to last eight days during the re-dedication of the temple. But in addition to lighting the Menorah, there are also Dreidel Games, Gelt, Latkes and Gifts.

While Thanksgiving is a one-day celebration, and inaugurates a holiday season of commerce and consumerism that seems to never end, Hanukkah on the other hand, is an eight day celebration which begins on this Thanksgiving Day. As the first, and probably only, Thanksgivukkah, we will watch developments, experiences and innovations over the next seven days.


Pilgrimage to the Land of the Bible

Notre Dame PatioImage

In Jerusalem, pilgrims are – well – what they are; pilgrims! To the local residents, pilgrims can sometimes be quite a spectacle to behold. They come all all colors – literally – and for every reason imaginable: religious, political and ideological, even mystical. Local residents find some pilgrims exotic, fascinating, naive most of the time – sometimes irritating, especially on politics and ideology.

A noisy group had just come back to the patio at the Notre Dame Center’s cafeteria. They were back, probably from Masada, and it was late afternoon. “The Americans!” word went around the cafeteria. My friend, Father Arbogast, came to the table where I was sitting, beaming on his face.

“Father Doyle and his group are back”, he repeated the sentiment already going around.

Every summer, Father Doyle brought a group of pilgrims from the United States. Some years he brought two or three groups in the course of the summer. As with all American groups, they were the noisiest of any group, and this returning group did not disappoint.

Father Doyle was always red on the face and even more so when he and his group settled down after a tour. He brought out his stash of whiskey which accompanied him from the United States to be shared with the group. As always, he also had a joke – several, actually – to go with the whiskey.

“In the Franciscan Order”, he was saying, “we take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The problem is, on Sundays and Mondays I observe poverty, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays I observe chastity, and on Thursdays and Fridays I observe obedience. On Saturdays I don’t know what to observe!”. He and his group burst out in laughter. It was Saturday too!.

A group of mostly nuns from the Philippines came to Father Arbogast with rosaries to be blessed. They just got back from Galilee and their tour guide had made prior arrangements to have their rosaries from Galilee blessed together to avoid too much time being spent on individual blessings.

“Wajinga hawa!” Father Arbogast remarked in Swahili as he rose to go to the table piled up with rosaries and surrounded by nuns in their habits. When he was letting me share his sarcasm, he made his remarks in Swahili. He just said to me: “They are ignorant (or naive)”. I could see him making the sign of the cross over the table then hurrying back to our interrupted conversation.

Orderliness was a sign a group was German. You could hardly hear them, they spoke in turn, one at a time, barely raising their voice. They cleaned up their table before leaving. Monsignor Martiny, the Director of Notre Dame Center, was always happiest when there was a German group in residence, obviously for more reasons than that he too was German.

Diversity, including eccentricity is always transformational in so many different ways, as the next story reveals.



On the footsteps of the prophets

Mea ShearimLife in Mea ShearimProtest by Mea Shearim

One of the most fascinating wonders for many Christians and Jews is what it was like at the turn of the first millennium, at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, a time of immense activity religious and political activity.. We are fascinated by the Pharisees and scribes and all those antagonists of Jesus portrayed in the New Testament; who we can only imagine, gone, like the historical Jesus himself. My own fascination led me to pursue studies in the Second Temple period, a fascination that was kindled at the Swedish Theological Institute on the Street of the Prophets.

Mea Shearim, literally, “a hundred gates”, in Hebrew, and right on the backside of the Swedish Theological Institute, provides the closest glimpse to what Jewish life was like at the time of Jesus. It is one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem – and the poorest – but purely fascinating.

There are synagogues and yeshivot (Jewish seminaries) on every corner. (The saying is true, that where there are two Jews, there are three synagogues). The men, dressed as they did in the ghettos of Europe, spend their days studying the Torah. I must have been the first Tanzanian ever to witness what literal understanding of the Torah really means: men and boys with long peot,  tzitzit hanging around their waist, donning prayer shawls, or talith and mezuzot on their foreheads and arms. Nothing could make Deuteronomy 6:-9 more vivid.

Walking around the neighborhood, I was transported to the time of the scribes. Yes, I witnessed the tedious and meticulous process of copying Torah scrolls. One of the friends of the Swedish Theological Institute was actually a scribe. The only way to correct a mistake in copying was to discard the whole scroll and start all over again. Those scrolls are not cheap.

Then, of course, the kids were fascinated – may be even shocked or terrified – to see me and my African colleagues. We must have been their first sight of us. “Cush! Cush!”, they gasped as they took refuge behind their fathers’ legs. The adults in turn covered their mouths as they shielded them from us and hurried down the street in quick steps.

There was, of course, laundry hanging on every balcony, and what a colorful display it was. Some keen observers claimed to notice holes in the center of bed-sheets which suggested a religious discipline in marital relations but I cannot vouchsafe for that – I must not have been keen enough.

Being within a short walking distance to the entertainment establishments on Rehov Yafo, Mea Shearim residents occasionally tried to enforce Shabbat restrictions on secular West Jerusalem. Obviously driving in Mea Shearim on Shabbat would have been suicidal but cinemas and bars on Rehov Yafo and even as far as Tel Aviv often tasted the irk of the religious.

What seems to be most interesting though, is the people of Mea Shearim’s opposition to the State of Israel. As far as they are concerned, only the Messiah can re-establish the state and that is still to happen.