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Thanksgiving: Don’t Let Political Disruptions Ruin Your Dinner

May our celebrations be filled with joy, understanding, and a commitment to the values that bind us together.
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November 22, 2023
© Andrew Zaeh | ZAEH, LLC, The Good Brigade/Getty Images

“Rabbi, help! Thanksgiving’s approaching and we have relatives whose positions differ from my own—on what’s happening between Israel and Hamas, on the necessity or not for a ceasefire, on the rise of antisemitism, on the morality of the current situation. How do I keep our Thanksgiving table from erupting into a food fight?”

So many of people have called or texted me, sharing similar concerns. Recognizing that family dynamics can be complex— the biblical book of Genesis is filled with dysfunction in families — and that many are struggling with the current situation, I suggest we proactively foster an environment of understanding.

A Framework for the Holiday

This Thanksgiving arrives in the aftermath of a brutal massacre and in the midst of a difficult war and an explosion of antisemitism. The numbers of the dead and injured — among Israelis and among Palestinians — are staggering. Concern for the hostages is overpowering. The emotions we feel about all this are intense.

In the midst of this comes a family gathering during which we each bring to the table our hopes and expectations, as well as disappointments, disagreements, and traumas from previous gatherings (and/or a lifetime of living together). Old family dynamics intensify, and new personal perspectives about who we are and what we believe can easily cause clashes. Many of these challenges are unspoken, lying just beneath the surface, ready to erupt when someone says something that stings. Being aware of these allows us to step back from the brink.

Moreover, holidays mean different things to different people. Some people approach holidays with an excitement for gathering together. Others arrive with an abundance of anxiety, often frustrated that we are one person in the world but during family gatherings become (or are expected to be) another. Balancing “the old me” with who I am now can be difficult when back with family. All of us too easily push other people’s buttons or have our buttons pushed. And then we react.

Suggestions for Surviving and Thriving

Be a non-anxious presence: Be mindful of past hurts and frustrations that you or others may carry. Recognize that every family has its unique dynamics — some may enjoy spirited debates, while others prefer a more harmonious atmosphere. Try to model holding space for gratitude over contentiousness, and others may follow your lead.

Intentionality: Set for yourself a kavannah (intention) of kindness for the primary value you want to govern your Thanksgiving experience. Encourage others to do the same. Let this value be foremost in your mind. Perhaps it’s honoring a deceased parent’s memory for the family to be together, or being a role model, or ensuring shalom bayit (peace in the home). If frustrations arise, stay focused on that intention.

Ritual: Organize a ritual that encourages reflection on hoda’ah (gratitude), shifting the focus toward shared experiences and positive moments. Because Thanksgiving has very little ritual attached to it, it too easily can be filled with arguments and additional drinking. Let guests know ahead of time about the ritual and what they might think about in preparation. Perhaps ask: “What are you most thankful for this year?” Or “What one person — outside of the political realm — are you most thankful for having in your life and why?”

Set Expectations: Predetermine when, where, and how long discussions of antisemitism and the war may happen. Some families love to argue. Some individuals hate it. Many people don’t fight fair. You can decide: No politics during dinner. No discussions after dinner. Two drink maximum. Everyone is loved so no name-calling.

Kindness (chesed): Remember the words of Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” Let this principle guide your interactions, promoting harmony even when opinions differ. When the inevitable comment occurs that causes your blood to begin to boil, take five breaths before responding. Decide if you really even need to respond or should.

Save the world … tomorrow: Today, choose to be with family. Pirkei Avot teaches: Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor (you don’t have to complete the work). Remember, the war and antisemitism itself will not be stopped or solved by what happens at this table. Few of us will change another’s mind over a Thanksgiving dinner, so perhaps we can postpone those discussions for another time, if at all. You can choose family over ideology for one holiday. Allow your Thanksgiving table to be a space where love and connection prevail over discord.

Alcohol: A gentle reminder to monitor your and others’ alcohol intake, as it can influence the tone of our interactions. Drink responsibly and encourage others to do the same.

Intentionality breeds better behaviors: Talk about this before guests arrive and make sure everyone knows what’s expected.

May our celebrations be filled with joy, understanding, and a commitment to the values that bind us together

Wishing you a joyous and peaceful Thanksgiving.

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