The Latke and the Turkey

By Zoe Fenson

In America, land of hype, it’s not often that we get to say “once-in-a-lifetime” and really mean it. But for once, this week, we can. Friends, Thanksgivukkah is nigh.

It’s the holiday that has the Internet abuzz: Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, united for a single gluttonous day. For the first (or possibly second) time since Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, it will fall within the eight-day span of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. Because Jewish holidays begin at sundown, the Thanksgiving meal will coincide with the second night of Hanukkah.

Although the two holidays are on separate calendars—solar and lunar—which means they skate around from year to year, having them actually intersect is an incredible rarity. In fact, according to some calculations, it won’t happen again for well over 70,000 years.

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah have connections and contrasts, so mashing them together creates a strange push-pull of food, historical significance, and tradition. As an American Jew, who grew up celebrating both holidays in equal measure, I can see a set of parallels between the two days—but I can feel a kind of tension too. Thanksgivukkah makes sense, and yet it weirds me out. Why is that?

For starters, there’s the food. Thanksgiving and Hanukkah each have their flagship foods, which are made at no other time of the year. Thanksgiving has the turkey, carved proudly to feed a crowd; Hanukkah has latkes, or potato-onion pancakes, fried until the kitchen stinks and served greasy and hot. These are ceremonial foods, which we love and crave and wait all year for.

It’s not surprising, then, that almost all of the media coverage of Thanksgivukkah seems focused on the food. Buzzfeed even dubbed it “the best holiday of all time,” and produced a glossy-looking list of cross-bred food ideas, from latkes with cranberry sauce to a rye-crusted pumpkin pie to a turkey brined in Manischewitz, the (in)famous sweet kosher wine.

Don’t get me wrong; as a foodie, I love this. The Thanksgivukkah meal planning is fun, the mash-ups are creative, and I will definitely be eating my latkes with cranberry sauce this year. But at the same time, it seems like Buzzfeed and the newspapers are most interested in grafting Jewish-American ingredients onto a traditional Thanksgiving menu, and that feels a little strange. Latkes have their own ceremonial significance: they’re fried in oil, representing the miraculous oil that burned for eight days in the rebuilt temple of Judea, the oil that gave the holiday its eight-day span and the nickname “Festival of Lights.” They’re not just another potato side dish, and it seems challenging to integrate them into a meal that already has such a strong identity of its own.

Even beyond the food, there’s a darker thread here. In a way, both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah arise from stories of religious zealotry. The protagonist groups of both stories were persecuted for their faith; the Pilgrims, after seeking safe harbor in Europe, voyaged across the Atlantic towards religious freedom in the New World, while the Maccabees chose to stay in their homeland and fight against their Greek overlords and Hellenized fellow Jews, who had outlawed their religious practice and defiled their temple.

Both of these stories have been sanitized and wrapped in colorful book-covers for children, while both have a strong thread of violence and intolerance: by the Pilgrims towards the Native Americans, and by the Maccabees towards their less-zealous countrymen. And yet I can’t help thinking that, in contour alone, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are in some ways mirror images. In both cases, an imperial outside force encounters resistance from the local residents. But in the Hanukkah story, the oppressed minority are the victors; in the Thanksgiving story—nevermind the communal table and the sharing of the harvest—it’s the empire that wins.

So there’s the historical tension, but for me, there’s a more intimate confusion too. Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are both family-focused holidays, but they occupy very different spaces in my brain.

Hanukkah, for me, is a place to hide from Christmas. During the holiday season, the air practically drips jingle bells and candy canes, and every song is a carol; it’s cultural saturation, and there’s no escape. It feels lonely. It’s not my tradition. And so we have Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday elevated to a major one, to give American Jews something to celebrate at Christmastime; it’s a little burst of blue-and-white confetti in an absolute torrent of red and green. So my family gathers at home, to light the menorah and sing the blessings and fry latkes. Instead of roasting chestnuts over an open fire, we wager them in games of dreidl. It feels like we’re celebrating for us. Our holiday. Our way of ducking out of the monthslong Christmas onslaught.

But though my family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, we do celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s a festival predicated on our identity as Americans, not Jews, and so we participate wholeheartedly. We plan for the meal months in advance, and invite a slew of family and friends. When it’s Thanksgiving’s time to saturate the airwaves, and the shop walls are papered with autumn leaves and cornucopia cutouts, and the recipes for turkey and stuffing and pie stack up on each other, I get it. It resonates with me, and makes me excited for the day. As my sister says, “I love Thanksgiving because it’s the only day of the year when I can be pretty sure I’m doing the same thing as almost everyone else.”

So Thanksgiving is outward, and Hanukkah is inward. Thanksgiving is grand, and Hanukkah is intimate. The food doesn’t quite fit, and the histories don’t quite fit, and the cultural associations don’t quite fit. And yet we’re bringing them together in a single, boisterous, food-laden day. I suppose this feels appropriate, since my American Jewish heritage is bound up in debating and arguing and grappling with the messy points of culture and identity. This is a once-in-a-lifetime day, and worth a once-in-a-lifetime grapple.

So I’m getting ready to roast my turkey (without the Manischewitz), and to shred potatoes and onions until I cry. On Thursday, my family will light the menorah and sing the blessings, and then raise a glass to the things we give thanks for this year. It will be a little strange and a lot of fun, and then we will never celebrate it again.

Here’s to Thanksgivukkah. The weirdest coincidental holiday of our time.

Zoe Fenson will fight you for the last latke.

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