An Evolving Thanksgiving, by Rabbi Fredi Cooper, Ed.D.

During the first days of November, I begin to travel into my “Thanksgiving mode.” Before I ever dreamt about becoming a rabbi, this meant trying to transform the day into something more for my family. Thanksgiving was the one American holiday that made sense to me—even as a person who generally resisted thinking about the ways that life had been fulfilling.

However, I found myself drawn to ritualizing this holiday in order to create traditions and (I hoped) a legacy for my daughters.

It was a joke in the Cooper household that the entire month of November brought various versions of the Thanksgiving meal to our dinner table. We lived in a month of mock Thanksgivings and the house routinely smelled of the holiday. I obsessively purchased cookbooks and magazines, trying to surpass my previous efforts, as the meals built up to the climactic point of Thanksgiving Day. Ironically, our meal had become ritualized to a degree that really allowed for little innovation or revision.

I even sewed appropriate costumes in which my daughters greeted the guests and re-enacted the Thanksgiving story.

All of this began to make perfect sense to me in my first year as a student at RRC. Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer was teaching an introductory course in Reconstructionist Judaism and she asked us to think about secular holidays that we had tried to infuse with a Jewish spirit. I immediately travelled mentally to the Cooper Thanksgiving table, and realized that I had unconsciously made it in the image of Pesach. It had a story—and even costumes—ritualized foods, blessings, and interesting items on our family table. We always included some questions about what we as a family felt grateful for.

I later discovered that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of ReconstructionistJudaism, had created texts for the Thanksgiving table to make the family meal like a seder. My own instincts were congruent with the path I was taking in life.

Since I’ve become a rabbi, our family has undergone some transformation, including keeping kosher. So, some of the ritualized Thanksgiving foods have needed revision. The string bean casserole—once made with a dairy-based soup—now contains sautéed shallots and mushrooms. The supermarket stuffing cubes have been replaced with home-made cubes of challah. Both of these modifications are truly improvements! I have even been known to try to make a turkey-shaped challah for the occasion, although it usually doesn’t really look like one.

Below, I offer the menu for what has become our unique Thanksgiving dinner. Please share your comments—and even recipes—below. How has your family put a little Jewish spirit in your Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving Menu for the Cooper Household

Turkey-shaped challah

Cranberry-orange bread

Turkeystuffed with challah and sautéed vegetables

Mashed sweet potato casserole with maple syrup and Granny Smith apples

Green beans with sautéed shallots and mushrooms

Homemade coleslaw

Masked Yukon Gold potatoes

Cranberry sauce (canned is preferred!)

Pumpkin pie

Apple-cranberry pie

Jewish apple cake

Rabbi Fredi Cooper, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of practical rabbinics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.  She also serves as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.