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The skyline of Manhattan is seen at twilight in New York, March 19, 2011. Under the green aerial are the lights of Times Square at 42nd Street while the Empire State Building stands in the center.
There aren’t many holidays celebrated by more than 300 million people that don’t have some religious origin, but Thanksgiving—arguably the most revered American national holiday—claims a unique place in our consciousness.
Thanksgiving, as the two words in the name directly state, is a day we give thanks. I love the idea of a day devoted to gratitude, counting our blessings, spending time with friends and family, and honoring the country in which we are citizens.
Born in Canada, I became a citizen of America in 1959. America is a country of immigrants, and I am the son and grandson of Russian-Jewish immigrants to Canada. I first visited the United States when I was 10 years old, coming to New York City. It was the Big Apple, and even then I knew by instinct I wanted to take a bite. The enormity of the skyscrapers, the throngs on the street, the sense of possibility in the air intoxicated me as a young lad, and still does. I fell in love with the promise America held. I knew it was where I wanted to live my life, and Thanksgiving is a time I feel an especially deep gratitude for all the good fortune I have experienced living here.
The holiday is also a time to reflect on what it means to be American and on the great privileges we enjoy here. One of the most cherished privileges is freedom of religion, a principle that allows people from every corner of the earth to take refuge on our shores. This right has allowed me to practice my own faith, and to respect the traditions of others as well.
As a Jewish American, it is this central principle of liberty that informs what I am most grateful for this Thanksgiving. Freedom of religion, of speech and of the separation of church and state are ideals that have allowed me to live without fear and have empowered me to practice my own religion as I choose.
That freedom of expression defines me not only as an American, but also as a Jew. In both my religion and my nationality, I can state my doubts and ask my questions. I see the expression of these American values in alignment with the ideals I cherish most deeply about Judaism, and at Thanksgiving I feel especially grateful to live in a country that allows me to honor both.
Over the years, Thanksgiving has become more meaningful to me, a secular holiday with increasing gravitas. One celebrates Thanksgiving as an American, not by gender, race or religion. That very expansiveness has attracted generations of Jewish people to come to the United States and has allowed them to thrive. Considering the Jewish experience through much of history, in which prejudice and persecution were often faced, the American ideal of freedom gave our people unprecedented opportunities. Jews have not always enjoyed civil rights in the countries they have lived in, but as Americans, Jewish rights have always been protected.
One example of this comes from the very president who proclaimed Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863. Abraham Lincoln, who declared the last Thursday of November to be celebrated as Thanksgiving, did so with an eye towards honoring history, but also as a way to heal a nation divided by the Civil War—a war whose greatest legacy was the abolition of slavery. It is a little known fact that in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln also defended the civil rights of Jewish citizens as well.
In December of 1862, Ulysses S. Grants issued his infamous General Orders No. 11, which ordered an expulsion of every Jew in his military district, which included parts of Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. After a delegation of Jewish American leaders came to appeal to him in January of 1863, Lincoln decisively ordered Grant to reverse the order. In this powerful example of the recognition of the rights of Jews, challenges were raised, hard questions were asked, and they were met with answers and actions that sought justice. This is the essence of a democracy.
Judaism, is my mind, is also capable of encompassing the dialogues between opposing views in order to arrive at an answer that seeks justice. That is the nature of our texts, especially the Talmud. In Judaism, just as in America, we can encompass doubt because we know that the essence of what we are protecting is strong enough to stand up to tough questions.
That ability to question is one of the things I cherish most deeply about my freedom, be it in my religion or my country. We are encouraged to question, to study, and to educate ourselves so that we may fully participate in Jewish life. I see a strong parallel in meaningfully participating in democracy. I am grateful to live in a country where I have the opportunity to enjoy that freedom, and even more thankful to have a holiday to reflect on that privilege.
Former chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd., Edgar M. Bronfman is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life. He is the author the forthcoming, “The Bronfman Haggadah,” created in conjunction with his wife, artist Jan Aronson, which will be published by Rizzoli Press, Spring 2013.