Giving Thanks

Dear Readers:

Below is a piece I wrote for The Huffington Post about the meaning of Thanksgiving to me. These Thanksgiving sentiments of mine usually carryover into December, becoming ever more present as the end of the year approaches. In a quiet moment, I hope you will join me in these reflections. 

For one year in high school, I had a second sister. Her name was Anamaria Monsao Mollo. She was an exchange student from Brasilia, Brazil. In September 1967, Anuska, as she was called, came to live with my family and attend Pearl River (New York) high school, under the auspices of the American Field Service student exchange program.

My parents took seriously the responsibility of sharing American experiences with Anuska. Though politically very liberal, my parents are also intensely patriotic. Consequently, Anuska experienced a Sive family Thanksgiving with all the trimmings — turkey, sweet potatoes and heated political arguments. This year at my sister’s, there will again be turkey and political arguments, but for the first time, my father won’t be present. Days before Thanksgiving last year, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He is now confined to bed at the nursing home where he lives. Later this week, most of his far-flung children and grandchildren will join him bedside to celebrate.

Another poignant Thanksgiving I remember is 1987’s, because Harold Washington died the day before. Washington was the first African-American mayor of Chicago. A towering figure in the city’s history, like my father, he was an emblem of the Declaration’s American promise we remember at Thanksgiving, regardless of political persuasion. Both were World War II veterans: one, a pacifist Jew who fought in German forests near gas chambers where it’s likely that long-lost European cousins perished, the other and an African-American who fought in a segregated army in the Far East for a freedom he didn’t have at home.

Thanksgiving is the holiday I treasure most because we give thanks for dreams that have come true, even if only in part, and even if cut short. That’s why it also makes me sad. Anuska had a Portuguese word for that sadness: “saudades.” Wikipedia defines it this way: “Saudade describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.” Saudades is for the dreams (and the people) that got away.

Those people are family and friends now gone. Those dreams are the ones seemingly gone. For those who grew up under Harold Washington’s tutelage, that dream was of a Chicago that would not be as racially segregated as the army and nation Washington had served decades before and as the city still is today. Today, my dream is also for a State of Israel held to the same ethical standards (no lower, but also no higher) as every other nation determined to protect its citizens. (For what other foreign country must President Obama insist it has the right to defend itself?)

I don’t criticize the failure of our leaders to sustain policies that treat all equally. But it makes me sad that it is still such a struggle to even create such policies. So, on Thanksgiving this week, I will give thanks for the ability to dream of equality, and the capacity to fight to achieve it, even as the longing for it grows ever greater as the Thanksgivings keep going by. Saudades, indeed.

Recently, I attended a bat mitzvah at which the rabbi told the girl who became a woman that day that whatever she dreams of accomplishing, she will. She just has to work hard. But that’s just not true. Sometimes, you dream of something and give it everything you’ve got and you still lose. Other times, you think you don’t have to kill yourself to realize the dream; maybe, luck will break your way. But it doesn’t, and you lose. I thought the rabbi was setting up that girl for terrible disappointment. Why not say, “dream big, work hard and feel good about the process, regardless of the outcome and your personal fortunes?” Why not say there will be longing, sometmies even disappointment, come Thanksgiving, as well as joy?

As World War II veterans pass, whether much too soon like Harold Washington, or in a grateful and loving old age, theirs is the lesson I wish the rabbi had shared that Saturday before Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving. Their lesson of lives loved and hard-fought — win, lose and draw.

I read the other day that the last surviving World War I veteran died earlier this year. Florence Green enlisted in Great Britain’s Women’s Royal Air Force in September 1918 at the age of 17. What a story of accomplishment that is — no matter what she was able to do with the rest of her life, no matter what disappointments she may have had. That’s the story I wanted that bat mitzvah to hear. That story of giving.

Though I’m not a believer, I will preach to those gathered at my cousin’s Thanksgiving table. I will say that I dream for others to have what I have. I will say that I dream for myself because I can, but not because my dreams must come true. I will say that I long for freedom, equality and peace in the streets of Chicago, Tel Aviv and everywhere. And I will acknowledge saudades once more.


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