Originally posted on jwa.org/blog on
Thanksgiving was my grandmother’s favorite holiday, and there’s an almost mythical story about the first time she celebrated it. My grandmother was born in Lublin, Poland, survived the Holocaust, and lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany for six years after her liberation. In the DP camps she married my grandfather, who was said to be handsome and tall, though his visa says he was 5’7. While still living in the camp, they had their first child, my uncle, Yitzchak. And in 1951 they came to the United States. It was November when their boat set sail across the Atlantic. As my grandmother told it, the boat docked in New York on Thanksgiving Day. But before docking, they were served a Turkey dinner.
It was the first time she had heard about Thanksgiving and the first time that she had ever eaten turkey, neither of which are European traditions. For me, I like the idea of this boat, full of men and women ready to rebuild their lives after so much devastation, arriving on an American national holiday that celebrates family, those bonds that most had lost. This was the 1950s, the era of the nuclear family, the rise of the middle class and its rigid expectations for gender roles. My grandmother, though touched by the welcome she received in her newly-adopted country, and I imagine, full of hope, was unable to rebuild her life according to the ideal of what it meant to be American in that time.
When my grandparents arrived in the United States their marriage fell apart. Actually I’ll restate that: when they set sail for the Unites States it was evident that their marriage was already falling apart. My grandfather carried on one of many extramarital affairs on the boat to the US. In America, my grandparents were expected to assimilate. They received visas to work for Ford in Detroit and quickly became citizens. My grandfather was enamored with American culture. He started to address Yitzchak as Jerry, their second child Esther, as Anne, and my mother Miriam, as Marilyn, like Marilyn Monroe. My grandmother resisted these names; she found them absurd. She pushed back on his desire to assimilate and maintained her Polish-Jewish culture and observances. But my grandfather, born in Warsaw to a religious family and knowledgeable of Talmud and all the intricacies of Jewish laws, was determined to be American. He spent his time at a diner that sounds to me like something out of Happy Days. There was a jukebox, sodas, and ice cream. Eventually he moved the family to New York and abandoned them there, in a small apartment in the Bronx, while he returned to the Midwest to date the bartender of his favorite Americana-themed diner. It’s easy to see the humor, even sympathy, for his aspirations and his strong desire to belong. But his actions were harmful.
This was not an era in which it was easy to be a single mother. My grandmother was excluded from most social events, where everyone was coupled. She was isolated and stigmatized as a single woman. She worked long hours at a deli and as a chef in a nursing home to provide for her children. She struggled with a new language and a new culture, often retreating into the familiar world of the kitchen, at work and at home, to cook the food she grew up preparing and eating.
While her friends bought houses and moved out of the Bronx, my grandmother remained in her small apartment. My mother tells me how as children, she and my aunt did their homework alone in front of the television, walked themselves home from school, and did the housework and the grocery shopping. She told me this while overseeing my homework, taking me to ballet lessons, braiding my hair in the morning before school, and enjoying the luxury of being a present parent.
My grandmother loved Thanksgiving because in many ways, it was an American holiday in line with Jewish traditions, a holiday with food and family at its core. A holiday that gave her a break from working in order to be present with her family. Thanksgiving allowed her to be American in a way that was true to her values and who she was. Being in the kitchen was both her livelihood and her cultural foundation. Counter to how I usually think of women, resigned to their limited role in kitchen, for my grandmother cooking and feeding her family was something she found enjoyable and fulfilling.
Though this country has its own history of injustices, it was a fresh start for the passengers on board that boat in 1951. It was a place where my grandmother could legally belong even while she struggled to feel truly American. Thanksgiving can be reclaimed as a holiday about inclusivity, a time when the many, many Americans who fall outside of the American norm and fall short of the American dream can gather with people important to them: all conceptions of family, within or outside of that outdated nuclear norm, and feel that they do in fact belong.