n the autumn of 1996, I wrote an essay based on a true story that appeared under the title “Hannah’s Mayflower Pilgrim.” Then, 18 years later, I created a new version for al-Mesbar, hoping in part to inform readers what America’s Thanksgiving holiday is all about. But so much has changed since 2014 that yet another telling begs to be told, but with a special (but slightly different) added context for both American and Arab readers.
For Arab readers, most of whom do not know America personally and hence well, two related background points are essential for understanding my original story in the current context. One point has to do with the origin of Thanksgiving as a holiday, and the other has to do with the unusual character of the American nation itself.
he Thanksgiving holiday is part of the very earliest American lore. The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 with 102 English Puritan settlers, and the first Thanksgiving occurred about a year later—by which time more than half of the 102 settlers had perished in a difficult winter. The tale as it has come down tells of the Puritans dining out of doors with local Indians (the Wampanoag tribe), who helped the colonists survive their first year. According to legend, the menu featured wild turkey; but historians have established that the main course was mostly eel.
The holiday has been celebrated on and off in America—mostly on—ever since. It was the first non-sectarian holiday in the history of independent America, with George Washington himself issuing a proclamation in 1789, the year the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
Except that non-sectarian is not a perfect word to describe it. Not all the British settlers who ventured to the New World in the 17th century were Puritans, but the vast majority were religious Protestants. Many were dissenters, and of the dissenters most were Calvinist (Dutch Reform). In New England particularly, several very religious communities formed. By today’s more secular standards, these communities might be described as fanatical or extremist. Many came in the wake of the English Civil War (1642-51), which was a theological radicalizing experience for many communities, and most brought a highly particularist Anglo-Protestant theology with them.
One aspect of that theology was its highly Judeocentric and Judeophilic tendencies. The Puritans, in particular, thought of themselves as the new Israel (“a kingdom of priests” and “a light unto the nations”) with a still-new reformed Christian covenant, and they saw America as the new Promised Land. The Protestant emphasis on Scripture, and on attaining the literacy with which to read it, led its adepts to become deep in the knowledge of the translated, King James version, of the Hebrew Bible—its stories, personalities, and character. They gave their children biblical Hebrew names and—now we come to Thanksgiving specifically—they modeled significant parts of the their liturgical calendar after the Jewish calendar, at least as far as they understood it from the Hebrew Bible.
So in addition to an autumn harvest festival, which is what the first and subsequent Thanksgivings were, the Puritans also proclaimed days of fasting for penitence. Days of both thanksgiving and days of fasting were proclaimed special days of prayer. Obviously, an autumn day of Thanksgiving was modeled on the Jewish holiday of Succot (Tabernacles), and the days of fasting and penitence were modeled on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). So the Continental-Confederation Congress, the legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, quite naturally issued several proclamations for “national days of prayer, humiliation, and thanksgiving.” And thus George Washington’s 1789 proclamation of the Thanksgiving holiday followed very logically from this deep history.
It is important for those who are not Americans to understand what this means, and doesn’t mean, for relations between the state and religion in the United States—because it is very different from what most nations have traditionally experienced. The United States by law and custom has always separated “church and state”, yes; but what that means in historical context is that, contrary to the role of the Church of England in Great Britain, no one church or denomination is to enjoy special status, privileges, or protection from the state. The American way in such matters developed out the social-institutional facts that diverse Protestant religious institutions predated state institutions, and that no single majoritarian denomination existed. It never meant that the government should drive religion out of the public sphere; that was the farthest thing from the Founders’ minds.
But more important, the American way also developed out of the conviction that the people are sovereign, and so the people grant rights to the government, not the other way around. Hence the U.S. Constitution is predicated on the people giving rights to the Federal government to do a limited and specified number of things, with all other rights continuing to reside with some confluence of individuals, families, faith communities—all loyal to their conscience, to the core of the Protestant idea of the “inner self”—and of local government arising from them. The Constitution is thus properly described as not only a limiting but a self-limiting document. (Whether it still functions that way in practice, and whether most Americans today understand the original meaning of church-state separation, are other matters.)
So Thanksgiving is an American holiday that inheres in the nation and its original faith-community dominated culture, not in the state. Like nearly everything else about American society and culture, the holiday precedes the state and shaped its ethos, not the other way around. Thus too, as the historian Gordon Wood once succinctly put it, “The United States is a democracy because the American nation is an egalitarian society, not the other way around.”
he second point flows from the first: The United States is an immigrant nation, and over time became a very diverse immigrant nation. It is therefore socially distinct from contemporary nations whose people have lived in pretty much the same geographical location for thousands of years. Such nations, by far containing the vast majority of people on the planet, are not necessarily homogeneous of course. Conquest and reconquest has had a way of forcing diversity on some people. But neither are they as “artificially”, voluntarily, and relatively recently constructed as immigrant nations.
At the same time, some immigrant nations—think Australia and New Zealand—are far more homogeneous than others. The United States, along with smaller places like Trinidad, for example, is very diverse. That diversity has been created by volition—many people seeking new lives in America—and by duress—the legacy of the slave trade and slavery. Without question, the defining social cleavage and political issue in the United States has ever and always arisen out of racial animosities, but this has developed in a general context of growing diverse immigration.
So yes, the United States was shaped and still reflects the seminal influence of a small set of British “hearth cultures,” as David Hackett Fischer described them in his classic book Albion’s Seed (1989). But those Anglo-Protestant hearth cultures were overlaid by a creedal form of nationalism arising out of the plural Protestant faith communities already described, and then overlaid again by so very many different kinds of people arriving over the years. As a result, America today is a noisy amalgam of all these influences. Trying to tease all that apart is a real challenge, and for some a full-time academic job.
But here is the crucial point about this second factor: For all of the anguish the American nation has experienced on account of its great and ever growing diversity—not to exclude the agony of a bloody civil war—and for all the work yet to be done to fashion “a more perfect union,” the United States is by far the most successful multicultural democracy in history.
It is fashionable here now to stress our faults and failings, and to worry about our divisions getting worse. And they have gotten worse in the past two years, because it serves the interests of certain political entrepreneurs to exacerbate and then harvest the fears that such divisiveness enables. But that is a very short-term view, and it does not mesh with the longer view.
To grasp the longer view, just walk around any American city or town on any given day and keep your eyes open—as no doubt many Arab visitors here have done over recent years. Do that, and what will you see?
You will see mostly good people, people who still know the difference between right and wrong. You will mostly see people who care about their neighbors and their community. You will mostly see people who value diversity, people who second-naturedly talk and interact with people of every skin hue and cultural background. In other words, you will see people for whom at least some non-trivial degree of tolerance, forgiveness, and gratitude are baked into their very beings.
Many such people are worried and nervous today—it’s true. But they’re still here, and in great abundance. They know what Thanksgiving is for. They are far wiser, better, and stronger than any one man and his coterie of disgraceful opportunistic pawns. Good people everywhere in the world should take heart from this truth. America is still beautiful, in more ways than one.
nd so now, finally, to my little story. Molly’s Pilgrim (1983), by Barbara Cohen, is a popular Thanksgiving children’s tale of a Jewish family in rural, turn-of-the-20th-century New York. Like many stories written for children, its plot is simple in design but profound in implications.
Molly is the only immigrant in her class, and the only Jew. Her classmates, led by the snooty Elizabeth, ostracize her because of her accented English and her “strange” looks—her Solomonic Middle Eastern nose, for example, though Solomonic is not the term they use. Molly wants to flee to New York City or even all the way back to Russia. But that, her mother says, is impossible.
As Thanksgiving approaches, Molly’s teacher assigns her students a project combining history, civics, and art. To recreate the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration in the fall of 1621, she assigns each student the fashioning of either an Indian woman or a pilgrim woman doll. Molly is assigned to make a pilgrim woman doll. She tells her mother about the project, and after grasping the meaning of the term “pilgrim”, Molly’s mother takes charge and makes a doll with scraps of cloth and thread.
When Molly sees the doll her mother has made, she is aghast. It looks like her mother; it looks like an East European immigrant. Molly knows that such a doll will not elevate her social standing among the other girls. But Molly, for want of an alternative, takes the doll to school. When Elizabeth and her gang see the exotic character, they taunt Molly as usual.
But this time the teacher steps in with a lesson on tolerance, diversity, and courage. She points out that Molly and her mother are no less pilgrims to America’s shores than were the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621. What’s more, she tells them, Thanksgiving is based on a Jewish festival called Succot. Thus justice is done, the haughty are brought low, and the downtrodden are vindicated.
For Jewish children who read this book in a Jewish religious school, as my daughter Hannah did in first grade, there is sometimes more to the story than just the usual lesson. In our family, something more did indeed happen.
Hannah’s first grade teacher liked Molly’s Pilgrim so much that she decided to build a lesson within a lesson. Like the teacher in the book, Susan Etkins asked her class to make dolls that looked like their families’ first pilgrims. In other words, as an exercise in both Jewish roots and history, atop the American experience illustrated by the book itself, the assignment was exemplary: Ms. Etkins, in effect, flipped the scenario.
But Hannah’s teacher was not prepared for the beautiful and educational complication her assignment created.
My wife’s name is Priscilla. She is a direct descendent of Priscilla Mullins, who was present at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Both sides of Priscilla’s father’s family, in fact, came to America in colonial times; one side actually came over on the Mayflower. Her father was born in Maine, schooled at Yale, and even uttered phrases like “gee willikers.” You can’t be any more WASP than that. Priscilla could by right join the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), but she has let the opportunity pass. For the past 37 years, Priscilla has been a Jew.
Priscilla knew exactly what to do with Hannah’s assignment from Susan Etkins. It struck her that just as Molly was the only girl in her public school class whose ancestors had come from Eastern Europe, so Hannah was the only girl in her Jewish day school class whose ancestors had stood on Plymouth Rock! Together we crafted a doll that looked…well, that looked like a 17th-century Puritan—a woman, we supposed, who looked much like Priscilla Mullins did. And Hannah’s pilgrim, just like Molly’s, stood out from all the rest. It amounted, in other words, to a double flip from the plot premise of Molly’s Pilgrim.
But unlike Molly’s doll in the book, Hannah’s doll received a sublime reception. In addition to the lesson her teacher had intended on diversity and tolerance, the children in the class learned the importance in Jewish life of the righteous proselyte, the convert—all the way from Ruth, the ancestor of King David, down to the present day.
lot has happened since 1991. My daughter Hannah is now married and a mother to Priscilla’s (and mine) three granddaughters, events that coincidentally turned our two sons into uncles three times over. But that is not why I bring this story back to view now. I have a more pointed aim in mind.
It took a long time in human history for the concept of genuine tolerance to develop. Tolerance is not mere forbearance. It is not born of condescension but of humility. At base, toleration is an admission that truth is elusive and that we are limited in our ability to find and know it.
All great religious cultures understand and preach tolerance, but few societies practice it consistently. Alas, all three of the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—still fight uphill battles much of the time to get their adherents to live up to their own ideals. We must understand that true tolerance is an achievement of human civilization, but that it is fragile and requires constant maintenance. There is no guarantee of its persistence anywhere, not even in the oldest and greatest liberal democracy in history.
So Americans not only marked and celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday, November 22. Americans needed Thanksgiving this past Thursday, needed it as much as they ever have. Why is that?
It is because we have an opportunity to make an important distinction. We count blessings often not of our own making when it comes to material things. When it comes to human interactions, however, we must be participants to merit the even more sublime blessings of tolerance, forgiveness, and gratitude in our societies. To express gratitude for these “higher angels” of our nature is something Americans naturally think about on Thanksgiving Day, so that we will work harder to appreciate and preserve them. Every other decent soul on this planet should hope and pray that we have done just that.