A Jewish look at Thanksgiving

My third grader came home yesterday talking about a book that her teacher was reading aloud to the class – Molly’s Pilgrim. Since Thanksgiving is two days away, it is good to be taking a look at different perspective when it comes to this holiday. I’m thrilled that her teacher shared this book with their class, especially with all that is currently going on in the world in terms of refugees.

mollys pilgrim coverMolly’s Pilgrim is about a young girl in the early 1900s whose family moved to America from Russia due to religious persecution. After a brief time living in New York City, her family moved to Winter Hill, MA where she finds herself sticking out as the lone Jew in her third grade class. Because she looks different and talks with an accent, she is often the subject of ridicule from her classmates.

As November rolls around, her class begins to read about Thanksgiving. Molly has never heard of the holiday, which of course prompts her classmates to laugh at her foreign ways. The subject came up, however, because her teacher is having them read the story of Thanksgiving, so Molly slowly begins to understand what Thanksgiving is all about.

Rather than focusing on the traditional pumpkins, turkeys and fall symbols often associated with Thanksgiving, her teacher gives the students an assignment to make Pilgrims and Indians for a class display. When Molly gets home and tries to explain the project to her mother, she has to find a way to explain Pilgrims to her as well, since Molly’s mother’s English is quite minimal.

“Pilgrims came to this country from the other side,” I said.
“Like us,” Mama said.
That was true. “They came for religious freedom,” I added. “They came so they could worship God as they pleased.”
Mama’s eyes lit up. She seemed to understand.

The reason that Mama could understand is that the early Pilgrims were just like Molly’s family – they had come to America to escape religious persecution. Mama makes a clothespin doll for Molly, but rather than looking like a traditional Pilgrim, Molly’s doll looks like someone of Russian or Polish descent. When Molly goes to class, this prompts taunts and jeers from her classmates, but Molly explained why her mother did it that way and her teacher agrees that the doll is a Pilgrim, just a modern one.

Molly’s teacher proceeds to explain to the class that the initial Thanksgiving feast was actually based on the Jewish holiday Sukkot that the Pilgrims had read about in the Bible.

Molly’s teacher thinks that her doll is wonderful and displays it on her desk to remind everyone that “Pilgrims are still coming to America.”

I managed to read a copy of this today and thought is was fabulous. I’m always impressed to find bits of Jewish history find their way into the classroom, especially since my daughter is the token Jew in her class (although there are 3 Jewish third graders at her school). It is also incredibly timely given the Syrian refugee issue going on right now across the world. In today’s day and age, the fact that there continues to be religious persecution requiring people to flee their homeland is heart-wrenching.

While the book comments about how the Thanksgiving feast was modeled on Sukkot, we were just discussing in Hebrew school this past weekend about the similarities between Thanksgiving and Passover. This year for Thanksgiving, my family will be following a Thanksgiving seder which will include telling the story of the Pilgrims and why they came to America. I love the idea of making this holiday a bit more meaningful and a reminder of all that we have to be thankful for.

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