Thanksgiving and Hanukkah haven’t overlapped since 1888. How can you combine Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in a newsletter and make it interesting? Maybe it’s a stretch but perhaps Julius Meyer found a way to do it.
The first Thanksgiving feast was celebrated in the Plymouth Colony in 1621 and commemorated the first harvest after a winter of near starvation. As we have come to understand it, the colonists invited the neighboring Indians to share the four wild turkeys they had caught. That first feast of Thanksgiving was established to forever be a symbol of hospitality and thanks. Years later, President George Washington proclaimed November 6, 1789 to be the first Thanksgiving Day. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln set the date as the last Thursday in November but President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed it to the fourth Thursday in November.
Thanksgiving started as a story about new arrivals, Pilgrims, who were seeking religious freedom. They paved the way for other settlers to come to the land of opportunity. After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 and after the upheavals in the German states in 1848, two waves of refugees fled their homelands for new lives across the ocean. They came with high hopes of a better life after escaping the tyrannies of Central Europe. They wanted independence and a chance at owning land. Some of our Jewish ancestors were part of that experience . . . and so was Julius Meyer.
In 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This officially opened up a vast territory in “the middle of nowhere.” We would refer to it as the “Wild West” . . . who hasn’t seen a John Ford / John Wayne movie about cowboys and Indians? At the same time American Jewry spread from the perimeter of the United States to cities in the interior. We became a known quantity, first peddling and then building successful businesses. Entering the mainstream of American life we gradually became more than a footnote. We became a thriving community that spread all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
In the meantime, Julius Meyer, a Jew born in Prussia in 1851, emigrated here as a young man to join his brothers in Nebraska who were already established merchants and traders. In his early travels he was captured by the Indians and almost scalped! He was rescued at the last minute by Chief Standing Bull. Meyer was named “Curly-Headed White Chief With One Tongue” because he did not speak out of both sides of his mouth. He learned six tribal languages and became a respected Indian trader and trusted adviser to the Plains Indian chiefs. He ultimately served as an interpreter for Native Americans in Congress and served as an Indian agent for the government. Meyer left behind a sizable collection of rare photographs of himself with all of the big Indian “machers” of the day including Spotted Tail, Iron Bull, and Pawnee Killer.
Meyer was also involved with both the first synagogue in Nebraska, Congregation of Israel of Omaha (now Temple Israel), and Omaha’s Hebrew Benevolent Society.
Thanksgiving started with émigrés who came to the New World. They, like Julius Meyer, shared food with the Indians. This is also the story of a Jewish pioneer who was an honored guest at many tribal feasts in the 1880s, the last time Thanksgiving and Hanukkah came out on the same day . . . until this month. We wonder if he, a member of “our” tribe, may have been a guest at a Native American Thanksgiving/Hanukkah feast on that day in 1888. If so, did they light the peace pipe with the shamash candle from the Menorah?
Please enjoy your turkey and latkes on this double holiday that celebrates both American and Jewish traditions. Give some thought to our buckskin-clad Jewish forebears and be proud of who we are. Happy Holiday!
Dorothy Douma Greene