Of all the things the Pilgrims couldn’t foresee while celebrating that first Thanksgiving — Black Friday sales, SpongeBob getting his own balloon in the Macy’s parade, gluten-free stuffing — we can safely add “Thanksgivukkah” to the list.
Thanks to Hanukkah’s habit of roaming the fall and winter calendar, this year the first day of the Jewish festival of lights is poised to land on Thanksgiving. The holiday pileup won’t strike for more than a month, but America being America, the land of the hashtag and the merchandise tie-in, the marketing frenzy has already begun.
The Jewish mother who channeled the term Thanksgivukkah while commuting on Route 128 last year quickly grabbed the Twitter handle, created a Facebook page, and trademarked the word. Stephen Colbert has faux-raged about “Thanksgiving under attack.” Buzzfeed ran a story with a recipe for Manischewitz-brined turkey, and a suggestion about adorning a yarmulke with a Pilgrim’s buckle. A New York City 9-year-old dreamed up a turkey-shaped menorah called a Menurkey, and funded his idea with a Kickstarter campaign. Food trucks have started their engines: Several will be part of a planned Los Angeles Thanksgivukkah festival.
And here in Massachusetts, Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston plans to proclaim Nov. 28 “Thanksgivukkah,” a declaration inspired by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
“This is a big deal,” Menino said through a spokeswoman, “a once-in-a-lifetime event. It’s a day to celebrate the diversity of our city, and the spirit of working together to make Boston a better place.”
Thanksgiving and Hanukkah have their origin stories, and Thanksgivukkah has its, so gather ’round. The magic struck last November, when Dana Gitell, a marketing specialist at NewBridge on the Charles, a Dedham retirement community, was driving to work.
She knew the holidays were going to overlap this year “because I had seen a list of holiday dates on the back of a Combined Jewish Philanthropies calendar,” recalled Gitell, the wife of Seth Gitell, a former Menino press secretary now working for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo. She was mentally running through a list of clunky names for the phenomenon — Hanukkahgiving? — when the more melodious Thanksgivukkah came to her.
Gitell, her sister-in-law, and a friend — an artist with New Yorker covers in her portfolio — promptly designed Thanksgivukkah illustrations and contacted ModernTribe.com, a hip Judaica site. Together, they created products including cards and a $36 T-shirt that reads “Thanksgivukkah 2013: 8 Days of Light Liberty & Latkes.”
Those items, along with the $50 plaster Menurkey and an $18 American Gothikkah poster — with the man wearing a shtreimel, or fur hat, and holding a menorah instead of a pitchfork, as he does in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” — are selling so well on ModernTribe that its founder says its like Christmas in July, or, as the case may be, Hanukkah in October.
“We’ve got people who are calling and ordering shirts for the entire family — 15 shirts in one order,” said the site’s founder, Jennie Rivlin Roberts. Ten percent of the proceeds go to Mazon, a Jewish charity that fights hunger.
Jews and non-Jews alike have been having a lot of fun with Thanksgivukkah, but behind the laughter lies a serious issue, brought into sharp focus by a recent Pew Research Center survey. It found that while American Jews “overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people,” more than one in five Jews (22 percent) now describe themselves as having no religion.
“The percentage of US adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2 percent,” Pew reported in early October. “The changing nature of Jewish identity stands out sharply when the survey’s results are analyzed by generation. Fully 93 percent of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion. . . . By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of US adults, 68 percent identify as Jews by religion.”
And now, a Thanksgivukkah miracle. Or, as Jeff Levy, director of JewishBoston.com, a program of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, put it: a learning opportunity.
“Every Jewish person celebrates Thanksgiving and pretty much every Jewish person celebrates Hanukkah,” he said. “If they’re married to someone who is not Jewish, all of a sudden you have 20 in-laws who might not have ever seen a menorah, or kids who may have never played dreidel.”
For those eager to brush up on their facts pre-Thanksgivukkah, Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 BCE. When they sought to light the Temple’s menorah, they found only a single pot of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, the one-day supply burned for eight days.
Levy, who conducted the Oct. 15 interview in which Mayor Menino pledged to proclaim the day Thanksgivukkah, hopes that it will “make Jewish life more accessible.” To that end, JewishBoston.com recently set up a dedicated site, ThanksgivukkahBoston.com on which it has posted Hanukkah prayers in English, a link to the Maccabeats’ Thanksgivukkah-themed version of Taio Cruz’s hit “Dynamite,” and an educational crossword puzzle. To solve 22 down, think of a six-letter word for the clue, “Maccabees fought them.” (Answer: Greeks.)
In a post called “Thanksgivukkah: How did this happen?!” the website explains that the Jewish calendar is tied to the moon’s cycles rather than the sun’s (as the Gregorian calendar is), and loses about 11 days relative to the solar calendar every year, but makes up for it by adding a month every two or three years.
“The result is that, while the Jewish holidays don’t always fall on the same calendar day here in the US, they always fall within the same month or so. This year, though, the Jewish calendar has thrown us all for a bigger-than-expected time loop.”
In less than a month, ThanksgivukkahBoston.com has attracted 12,000 unique visitors, Levy said. “We’re getting people from around the world.”
In Brookline, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of Temple Beth Zion likes Thanksgivukkah’s message, and he is eagerly anticipating latke-stuffed turkey. “I wish it could be this way every year,” he said.
Alas, the holiday convergence has happened only once before — in 1888 — and, according to one calculation, won’t repeat for another 79,043 years. Mark your calendar.