Thanks for Everything

Our holidays are as much about what we are bidden to remember as about what we are willing to forget.

At Chanukah we celebrate the miraculous rededication of the Second Temple by Judah Maccabee. In so doing the festival’s complex historical background fades to backstory. The part we more typically overlook is that the Maccabean revolt was not just a struggle versus Antiochus, an anti-Jewish ruler, but against a larger group of Jews who wanted to be more Greek and less Jewish.

And, according to the unvarnished account, the Maccabees treated their more-Hellenized brethren viciously. Judah’s father Mattathias derived his status from his peremptory murder of a Jew who offered a pagan sacrifice — an act that, from the outside, looks an awful lot like political terrorism.

Anyway, enjoy your latkes.

As for Passover, we tend to elide right over the seder’s little tidbit about the Lord smiting all the firstborn sons of Egypt. Sure, we dip a finger in our wine glass and dab it on our plate to recall the innocent blood that was shed, but most of us then lick our fingers and proceed to the soup.

Purim ends in a bloodbath, plain and simple, which is conveyed by an almost throwaway line. The Book of Esther speaks about how the king, instead of murdering the Jews, carried out his decree instead against their foes: “As a result, the Jews killed more than 70,000 of their enemies.”

Maybe it’s time to amend the tongue-in-cheek definition of a Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us. They failed. We’ll forget the ugly parts. Now let’s eat.”

Thanksgiving, interestingly enough, offers the same challenge. Compared to the Jewish holidays we celebrate, the historical events that we celebrate this Thursday are centuries nearer in the historical record. But how soon we forget, or, more accurately, misremember.

Two new books provide a historical before-and-after picture of our beloved national holiday that is as cold as a cranberry mold.

In “Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors” (Doubleday), James Reston, Jr. documents the events in Spain that surrounded Columbus’ voyage to America. In their drive to consolidate their rule, to be more Catholic than the Vatican, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella launched the Inquisition, a campaign of terror, torture, murder and exile against some 120,000 Jews and thousands of Muslims.

“It is little appreciated,” Reston writes, “how intimately the discovery of the New World is bound up with the victory of Christianity over Islam … with the expulsion of the Spanish Jews, with the terrible Spanish inquisition…”

The piety and savagery that marked the reconquest of Christiandom crossed the Atlantic in 1492 (thanks, as Reston points out, to Abraham Zacuto, an exiled Jew who supplied Columbus’ four voyages with maps and copper astrolabe).

Charles C, Mann picks up the story in his book, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” (Knopf). Drawing on new research, he puts the pre-“discovery” population of the Americas at 112 million, larger than the entire population of Europe. Contact with European diseases wiped out 90 percent of these people.

And consider this lovely Thanksgiving tableaux: In his history of Plymouth Colony, the colony’s governor William Bradford wrote that he and his fellow Puritans only survived the first winter by robbing vacant Indian houses and graves. In Plymouth, the colonists established their homes in a deserted Indian village.

The “good hand of God,” as Bradford terms it, evidently favored the Pilgrims with a plague of viral hepatitis upon the land’s former inhabitants, ” sweeping away great multitudes of the natives … that he might make room for us.”

And what disease didn’t accomplish, outright military force and broken treaties took care of.

I don’t mean to ruin your holiday: I plan to celebrate it with as much poultry and pie as you. And I’m not going to lead the protest against Thanksgiving’s place as one of our favorite national holidays, one that Jewish Americans of almost all stripes celebrate.

But these darker histories, like the shattered glass at the end of a wedding ceremony, should give us pause in the midst of our joy.

So in that spirit, even as we celebrate with gratitude this Thursday the blessings bestowed upon us and our loved ones, let’s not forget our obligation to bestow blessings on those still in need:

  • The victims of Hurricane Katrina, some 50,000 of whom, as I write this, could soon be rendered homeless, as CNN reports, when federal and state financial support is scheduled to end.
  • Our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting a war based on bad intelligence, and conducted unintelligently by our political leaders. Let’s resolve to find a way for them to complete their missions as safely and as soon as possible.
  • The victims of American torture. Let’s resolve to speak up against methods and practices, as the Israel Supreme Court did in 1999 to stop the practice in Israel. Torture dehumanizes us as well as our enemies.
  • The victims of genocide in Darfur and Chad. Without forthright action, more than 2 million people will languish, die or be slaughtered in refugee camps, victims of the same sort of hate and violence that engendered the phrase, “Never Again!”

Happy Thanksgiving.