Thanksgiving | Giving thanks for a fight-free family feast

As my family, and families across the country, begin preparations for the Thanksgiving feast, I wonder what kind of tsuris could rend asunder this day of plenty, pilgrims and, well, pigskin.

Even in this season of presidential candidate debates, I knew that the table divider at my house probably wouldn’t be politics — only some 6 percent of Americans have had a Thanksgiving dinner ruined by a political argument, according to an Economist/YouGov poll taken last December. But what about familial politics?

This year, with my family coming over to partake in the feast, I didn’t want any infighting. After all, Thanksgiving is historically an important day for both sides to come together, as in the story of the Wampanoag Native Americans joining the Pilgrims for that first dinner held in Plymouth Colony in 1621.

Though our plans are smaller scale and do not include a hunting party, as did that first dinner, we do plan on entertaining for a few hours and want to do it in happy union.

Moreover, on the Shabbat the week of Thanksgiving this year, we read from the portion Vayishlach, which relates the story of how estranged brothers Jacob and Esau reconcile. Years have passed, each is successful in his own right, but Esau is coming with 400 men. Is he going to settle the score?

Though my guests arrive without an army, each family gathering does present the opportunity for slights to be addressed and wounds reopened. In the Bible, Jacob sends ahead gifts to his brother to ease the tension. In our invitations to Thanksgiving dinner, I also suppose we send an offer of potential reconciliation of family issues.

Setting aside my projection that our table could be split between Clinton and Sanders supporters — I do have a right-leaning nephew, but he’s celebrating Thanksgiving elsewhere — I could see that there were other factors, aside from voting patterns, that could divide our company: important things like stuffing and cranberry preferences.

Given the violence happening worldwide, peacefully resolving family disputes may seem trivial — that is, until the blow-up happens around your own table, as it did at my mother’s house one year when a guest showed up totally shickered. It also happened at another Thanksgiving when an Orthodox vegetarian refused to even pass the turkey platter.

So the entire mishpocha, comprised of some 16 politely opinionated people, comes to our Los Angeles home for the feast. Just throw a bigger turkey in the oven and shlep out a few more chairs, right?

Not really. Just because the meal is largely a secular one for Jews, do not think for a second that our preferences for “traditional” flavors — whatever they may be — are given the day off. For many families, there’s only one way to prepare the turkey, the yams, the pie, and only that way will keep peace at the table.

Turning to the Bible, there is a portion (Genesis 18) when Abraham suddenly realizes that he and Sarah are going to have angelic guests — the literal and not behavioral kind — in their tent. They rush about preparing the food and seeing to the comfort of their divine guests, so much so that when hospitality, or hachnasat orchim, is discussed in a Jewish context, these verses are often cited.

But Abraham and Sarah did not have to divvy up the food assignments among branches of their family, each with their own tribal preferences.

Many Thanksgiving dinners today are group endeavors, even potluck, and ours is no exception. My brother-in-law and his wife supply salad and drinks, my sister-in-law brings a kugel and mother-in-law buys knishes (this is, after all, a Jewish meal).

For the traditional Thanksgiving must-haves, nothing is left to chance — in fact, there is planned redundancy. That is, to keep everything copacetic between the two sisters (who deny any competition), there are two of almost everything: two styles of stuffing (one with kosher sausage, the other with challah and vegetables), two types of cranberry sauce (a cranberry orange relish and a sauce made with wine and nuts), plus two vegetables and yams.

Though there’s barely enough room at the table for all the dishes, I must say that all the passing does keep us together. And we’re careful not to play favorites: There’s no singing the praises of one cook’s dish without a favorable comparison to the other’s offering.

There can be no table cliques or caucuses. We dine together or we dine alone. If this is the price of Thanksgiving shalom bayit, peace in the house, then call me a satisfied and satiated fan.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at [email protected]

Edmon Rodman
Edmon J. Rodman

Edmon J. Rodman writes about Jewish life from his home in Los Angeles and is the author of the weekly Guide for the Jewplexed on virtualjerusalem.com. Contact him at [email protected].