The family gathering around the Thanksgiving table provides the perfect altar on which to sacrifice family peace. Ironic, since Thanksgiving is literally giving thanks for what we have. Hopefully, that includes those sitting at our table. It’s a celebration of American ideals: family, democracy, togetherness, sharing, loving. Norman Rockwell may illustrate the family members gathered peacefully around the table, smiling at each other, but this ideal is not always realized in our dining rooms. As U.S. citizens, we profess religious freedom, but within our own families, we tend to judge the beliefs and practices of others.
Even if all family members identify as Jews, there is plenty of religious diversity and disagreement. Siblings can range from super frum to super secular. The secular Jews have little respect for the religious, and the feelings are mutual. Though the turkey is as American as apple pie, there’s room for food fights when part of the family keeps kosher and the rest does not. The more secular participants resent the restrictions: No milk in their coffee. And the apple pie? Yuck! Made with ersatz butter! They resent that anything they bring must be bought at a kosher store for twice the price as their local supermarket. Not only that, but everything must be brought on paper plates which is bad for the environment and is hardly fine china. But hey, at least they don’t have to worry about transportation on this holiday–no walking to shul necessary.
The frum ones are following halacha, and the secular Jews are operating with a different mode of thought. They find no common ground for disuccssion. “The law is the law,” or so they are told. The parents are caught between the siblings. For them, the most important part of the holiday is being together with all their children and grandchildren. They may view all these accommodations as well worth the effort, or they may feel controlled by their more Orthodox children. In any case, all family members are on different wave lengths.
Of course, having a cold vegetarian meal can mitigate a lot of the difficulties but, for the seculars, that would be unacceptable since turkey is the very symbol of this holiday. However, they could decide that sharing a meal is more valuable than having the traditional turkey dinner.
Even though walking to shul isn’t necessary, location could play a role. If the holiday takes place at the home of the more religious members, they can take charge of all the arrangements and have the meal exactly as kashrut dictates. If, however, the meal is at a more secular member’s home, those who keep kosher can bring their own food wrapped in plastic.
The solutions to the food problems are fairly easy. What creates the war is a lack of sympathy and understanding for others’ religious practices. The secular family members are unwilling to accommodate the religious because they often feel their preferences are overshadowed. Those who follow the mitzvot can mitigate these feelings by thanking their siblings for making accommodations. The more secular can minimize difficulties by putting in perspective that the minor alterations to their Thanksgiving traditions are exactly that: minor. The big picture to be preserved is the family.
Thanking instead of denigrating and accommodating instead of criticizing other family members works wonders for achieving shalom bayit. Making time to share mutually enjoyable activities also helps. Peace can be achieved with tolerance from both the secular and the frum family members. Thanksgiving can once again become a peaceful scene worth a painting by Norman Rockwell but only if we all work at it.