I have very few memories of Thanksgiving as a child. Passover has so many memories attached to it: from my grandmother’s house and later, apartment, in Pittsburgh. A long table, lots of noise, the smell of chicken soup and brisket, sweating bodies of relatives I did not really know: that I remember
But I don’t have an inventory of Thanksgiving images. This is likely due to a variety of unpleasant realities that formed my childhood. I won’t go into those details. Suffice to say that I wasn’t a happy camper.
We can have terrible childhood experiences, moments that scar us, physically and psychically, for life. Images we see, sounds we hear, smells, and so forth, can set off a round of anxiety and discomfort that can shut us down. This is a classic description of PTSD.
It can take a lifetime to uncoil from bad PTSD, hours and hours of therapy that is usually grueling beyond imagination. It ain’t easy. Despite the quixotic claims of modern neuroscience, there is no cure for trauma. Once it enters the body, it stays there forever, initiating a complex chemical chain of events that changes not only the physiology of the victims but also the physiology of their offspring. One cannot, as war correspondent Michael Herr testifies in “Dispatches,” simply “run the film backwards out of consciousness.” Trauma is our special legacy as sentient beings… The best we can do is work to contain the pain, draw a line around it, name it, domesticate it, and try to transform what lies on the other side of the line into a kind of knowledge, a knowledge of the mechanics of loss that might be put to use for future generations.
The lack of Thanksgiving cheer in my childhood has not robbed from me the possibility of a terrific celebration in the present. Whatever did and did not happen then does not interfere with what I have now. I love Thanksgiving now! I prepare a spread of delectables, a 20lb turkey, and all the traditional and not-so-traditional fixings. I create a songbook filled with all sorts of traditional American melodies and we sing! I used to recite Alice’s Restaurant, but I was told that I was hogging the spotlight. Moi?
Being able to unabashedly embrace Thanksgiving serves to remind me that we can break on through to the other side. Perseverance, looking into the future and believing we will somehow get there, is what they call grit. Without it we can’t draw the lines around the pain.
I am so grateful on this Thanksgiving for a warm and loving family and friends who shower me with love and joy and laughter. I am so grateful for the men and women with whom I work, selfless and inspiring people who devote themselves to the Jewish people. And I am so grateful for my congregation, my large and beloved ‘other’ family. You inspire me every day. There’s a lot going on out there. It’s good to know that we provide a place where the door is always open and the light is always on. Thank God for all of you.