Back in the old days — when the Diaspora was known as Golus — Jews knew how to party. What would it take to get a Jewish celebration going? Why, little more than an impending pogrom thwarted by the intervention of a wealthy local Jew who had the ear (and the purse strings) of the local prince or bishop!
Every year, at the anniversary of the “nullification of the evil decree,” the local Jews would throw a Purim katan, a mini-Purim. Some communities even had “megillah readings” narrating the details of the planned atrocity and the heroic back-scene machinations that foiled the current “Haman, yimach shmo!”
The contemporary celebration of Israel Independence Day, Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, is the most recent reflex of this custom. Now, of course, instead of a Jewish queen, it is Zionism that comes to the rescue of the Jewish people “from another place” (namely, modern secular nationalism), saying “yes” to Jewish survival and “no” to past and future Holocausts.
I suspect that even the ardent Zionists among us (and would “ardent Zionists” still be “among us?) may agree that Yom Ha-Atzma’ut is really best understood as an Israeli celebration by Israelis and should remain that way.
So I ask — in the spirit of Purim katan — shouldn’t American Jews find a way of celebrating America as a unique redemptive moment in the pageant of contemporary Jewish well-being? Isn’t it time to acknowledge in a formal way — on the communal calendar! — the blessings that this country has bestowed upon the Jewish people?
If you’re with me this far, the next question is: “Where on the calendar can we look?” The Fourth of July? I don’t think so. It’s already drenched in Americana, for one thing; for another, it has no Jewish resonance other than the depressing fact that it sometimes falls on the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz. Not good.
As it happens, the American holiday calendar already contains a perfect opportunity to infuse Jewish meaning into the American national saga: None other than the recently passed Thanksgiving! What could be more Jewish than a harvest holiday that celebrates the providence of God in leading His chosen people to the promised land and thanking Him for the bounty He provides?
There’s only one problem, of course: The Thursday thing. You eat your turkey dinner on Thursday night and what happens to Shabbos dinner on Friday night? Turkey leftovers? How does one give kavod to Thanksgiving without slighting Shabbos?
Well, over the years, my family has evolved the perfect solution to the “Thanksgiving conundrum.” In our house we celebrate the Shabbos after Thanksgiving with the turkey dinner appropriate to Thanksgiving Day. We call it Shabbos Hodu (“The Shabbos of Thanksgiving”). This way, we do justice to the American dimension of being grateful for the blessing of American freedom while continuing to honor the Sabbath as a day to revel in the freedom of release from labor and, as we say in the kiddush, “a memorial of the liberation from Egypt.”
I’ll admit that the name, Shabbos Hodu, conceals a sly pun. In Hebrew, you see, the third-person plural imperative “give thanks” (hodu) is identical to the word for “turkey.” You know the Hallel Psalm hodu lashem ki tov (“Give thanks to God, for He is good,” Psalm 118:1)? Well, with only a twist of the translator’s art it could just as well be rendered “Have turkey for God’s sake, it’s so good!”
If you doubt the linguistic legitimacy of Shabbos Hodu, I would note that it has a pedigree that goes back to the story of Purim. The megillah informs us in its first lines that King Ahasueros’s Persian empire extended from mi Hodu ad Kush” — from India to Ethiopia.”
Hodu, of course is the ancient (and modern) Hebrew name for India. Okay, so if hodu also means “India” what does that have to do with a new world bird like the turkey?
Chalk it up to the Zionist conspiracy! When the pioneers found it necessary to create Hebrew words for foods that never existed in the Bible or Mishna, and considered what to call this tasty new world bird, they naturally leaned on the precedent of familiar languages like Arabic, Polish, and Russian.
As it happened, the Arabs called the turkey “the Indian rooster” (diiq Hindi), while in Russian and Polish it was known as “the Indian bird” (Indjushka, Inyczka). After all, it was native to “India” — as in West Indies, that is!
Why, even in Turkey, the bird is called “Hindi!”
And that, my friends, is how the Hebrew turkey became hodu. So, you may ask, how did this new world bird, in its own habitat, acquire a Turkish rather than a Hindu genealogy?
Let me appeal to the authority of NPR science blogger Robert Krulwich (“Why a Turkey is Called a Turkey”):
Long before Christopher Columbus went to America, Europeans already had a wild fowl they liked to eat. It came from Guinea, in Western Africa. It was a guinea fowl, imported to Europe by, yes, Turkish merchants. It was eaten in London. So it got the nickname Turkey coq, because it came from Constantinople. When British settlers got off the Mayflower in Massachusetts Bay Colony and saw their first American woodland fowl, even though it is larger than the African Guinea fowl, they decided to call it by the name they already used for the African bird. Wild forest birds like that were called “turkeys” at home.
There you have it all in a neat package, from Hodu to hodu, from Thanksgiving to Shabbos Hodu, from the old world to the new, from enslavement to freedom. So remember, when next November comes around — for God’s sake, have a turkey for Shabbos Hodu!