As those precious few of you who follow this blog regularly know, from time to time I comment on seasonal holiday markers. I have done so for New Year’s Eve and for Groundhog’s Day, as well. I want to do so now for Thanksgiving, but using a slightly different approach than the one I employed for the others. Like the New Year’s Eve offering, this one is liable to be more interesting to Jews than to non-Jews (but perhaps not). But unlike either of the foregoing pair, this one is more personal, less glib, and happens also to involve pre-published material.
Back in the autumn of 1996—in other words—some 18 years ago—I wrote a short essay for Moment magazine. Based on a true story, it appeared in the October issue under the title “Hannah’s Mayflower Pilgrim.” It’s still one of my favorites, and I bring it to you now, complete and unabridged (as they say) except for some paragraph-break compression, with the kind permission of Moment’s editor.
* * *
Molly’s Pilgrim, by Barbara Cohen, holder of a 1983 National Jewish Book Award for picture books and the Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award, is a popular Thanksgiving children’s tale of a Jewish family in rural, turn-of-the-century New York. It is widely used in Jewish day schools and Sunday schools around the country, and in many public schools too. Like many children’s stories, its plot is simple in design, but profound in its implications.
Molly, the tale’s protagonist, is a schoolgirl who is the only immigrant in her class; what’s more, she is the only Jew. Her classmates, led by the snooty Elizabeth, ostracize her and compose doggerel about her halting English, her “strange” looks, and her Solomonic nose—though Solomonic is not the term they use. Molly wants to flee them, to go to New York City or even all the way back to Russia. But that, her mother says, will not be possible.
As Thanksgiving approaches, Molly’s teacher assigns her students a project that combines history, civics, and art. To recreate the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration with the Indians in the fall of 1621, she asks each student to make a doll of either a pilgrim or an Indian. When she returns home, Molly, who was assigned the task of fashioning a pilgrim woman, tells her mother about the project. After receiving a brief definition of the term “pilgrim,” Molly’s mother takes charge of the project and makes a doll with scraps of cloth and thread.
When Molly sees the doll, she is aghast. It looks like her mother, wearing full East European dress. Molly knows that a doll dressed like that will hardly elevate her social standing among the other girls: It doesn’t look any more like a 17th-century English Puritan than (as James Thurber once said) Calvin Coolidge looked like the MGM lion.
To make what is already a short story shorter—it’s a children’s tale, after all—Molly, for want of an alternative, takes the doll to school. When Elizabeth and her gang see the exotic character, they taunt Molly as usual.
Now the teacher steps in with a lesson on tolerance, diversity, and courage. She points out to the children that Molly and her mother are no less pilgrims to America’s shores than were the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621. What’s more, she tells them, Thanksgiving is based on a Jewish festival called Sukkot. Thus justice is done, the haughty are brought low, and the downtrodden are vindicated.
For Jewish children reading this book in class, as my daughter Hannah did when she was in first grade at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., there is more to the story than just the usual moral. Molly’s Pilgrim (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1983) provides not just a connection to an American tradition but also a connection to something Jewish: Thanksgiving has meaning for us as Americans and also because, in all likelihood, the Pilgrims really did model Thanksgiving after Sukkot. We Jews can rightfully take pride in Thanksgiving’s Jewish source.
But for Jewish families whose children study Molly’s Pilgrim, the lesson of a November morning ends and everyone turns to the onerous task of doing battle with the theological confusions and glittering temptations of Christmas. In our family, though, it did not happen quite that way. Hannah’s first grade teacher liked Molly’s Pilgrim so much that she decided to build a lesson within a lesson. Like the teacher in the story, Susan Etkins asked her class to make dolls that looked like their families’ first pilgrims.
As an exercise in both Jewish roots and Jewish history, atop the American experience borne by the book itself, the assignment was exemplary. But neither Hannah’s teacher nor we were prepared for the beautiful and educational complication it created.
My wife’s name is Priscilla. She is a direct descendent of Priscilla Mullins, who was present at the first Thanksgiving. Both sides of Priscilla’s father’s family, in fact, came to America in colonial times; one side actually came over on the Mayflower. Her father was born in Maine, schooled at Yale, and may still be heard to utter phrases like “gee wilikers.” It seems to roll as naturally off his tongue as oy vey would off the tongue of a Yiddishe mama.
Priscilla could by right join the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), but she has let the opportunity pass. For the past 15 years, Priscilla has been a Jew. Not only have our three children attended Jewish day school; Priscilla has had the pleasure of teaching science there. Our home is kosher, our Sabbath is traditional, our synagogue is Orthodox, and thanks to the year our family spent in Israel, Priscilla can even get around in Hebrew. We both prefer hummus to pate, so whatever would she do at a DAR meeting?
Priscilla knew exactly what she would do when Hannah got her assignment. It struck her, as it did us all, that just as Molly was the only girl in her public school class whose ancestors had come from Eastern Europe, so Hannah was the only girl in her Jewish day school class whose ancestors had stood on Plymouth Rock.
Together we crafted a doll that looked…well, that looked like a 17th-century Puritan—a woman, we supposed, who looked much like Priscilla Mullins did. And Hannah’s pilgrim, just like Molly’s, stood out from all the rest.
On the other hand, unlike Molly’s doll, Hannah’s received a sublime reception. In addition to the lesson her teacher had intended on diversity and tolerance, the children in the class learned the importance in Jewish life of the ger tzedek, the righteous proselyte, from Ruth to the present day. And they learned about the tolerance that is at the heart of what it really means to be a Jew.
So, to Molly’s pilgrim and Hannah’s pilgrim both: We are, all of us, eternally in your debt. Truly, we have much in our lives to warrant a Thanksgiving feast.
* * *
A lot has happened since 1996. My daughter Hannah is now married and a mother to Priscilla’s and my granddaughter Yael (aka Yaya), an event that coincidentally turned our two sons into uncles. But that is not why I bring this story back to view now. I have a more pointed, if nevertheless somewhat abstract, aim in mind.
It took a long, long time in human history for the concept of genuine tolerance to develop. Tolerance is not mere forbearance. It is not born of condescension but of humility. At base, toleration is an admission that truth is elusive and that we are limited in our ability to find and know it. There is a world of difference between the Saudi professor once quoted in the New York Times who illustrated his idea of tolerance by saying, “Of course I hate you because you are a Christian, but that doesn’t mean I want to kill you”, and the idea of tolerance illustrated in Molly’s Pilgrim.
Sad to say, tolerance did not garner widespread application in much of colonial New England toward Protestant Christians of non-Puritan beliefs, not to speak of Catholics, Jews, blacks, and native Americans. But the idea inhered in the Anglo-Protestant tradition and it eventually bloomed forth on both British and American soil. Toleration also inheres in Rabbinic Judaism, albeit not in precisely the same form; one can see it, for example, in the Mishnaic statement, “Do not judge your fellowman until you have come to his place”—stood in his shoes, in more colloquial language. And of course in the Jewish experience the concept of tolerance takes shape from the underside, from a diasporic people more in need of tolerance than in a position to dispense it to others.
Alas, not all cultures have the concept of tolerance as we know it. Those that do not tend toward a default chauvinism in their attitudes toward those who are different. Such cultures tend to see dissent as disloyalty and doubt as heresy. They sometimes understand intolerance as a virtue, as an impulse toward the benign purification of society and soul. A culture that lacks a mature concept of tolerance is also generally more at ease with hierarchical and authoritarian ways than with egalitarian or democratic ones. Yes, that’s right: I am suggesting that political cultures depend on and are shaped by deeper, prior social understandings.
As it happens, there is another concept that entwines with tolerance in such a way that the two concepts are largely co-defined. That concept is forgiveness.
As others have pointed out, forgiveness is not just the appeasement of anger. It cannot be achieved by paying blood money for wrongs done. True forgiveness is possible only among those whose humility enables tolerance. We can forgive others, thus breaking the primitive spiral of harm and revenge, because we recognize our own moral frailty, our own capacity for falling short. To forgive others is to tolerate their imperfections, something we can do in expectation that others will forgive us when we fall short. It makes the offering and acceptance of sincere apologies possible. It makes peace as opposed to mere truces possible. It helps, of course, to have an image of God as a merciful and forgiving power, an exemplar for those created in His spiritual image, for the concept of forgiveness to take firm root in a culture.
Like tolerance, forgiveness did not always exist and, like tolerance, it does not exist evenly (or even at all) in diverse human cultures today. It’s not clear in Molly’s Pilgrim if Molly forgives Elizabeth after the teacher’s rebuke and lesson, but the moral logic of the situation seems to require it in order to achieve a truly happy ending to the story. That, anyway, is how most contemporary Westerners are liable to see things.
And of course all of this bears on how we understand gratitude, or thanksgiving. We count blessings often not of our own making when it comes to material things. When it comes to human interactions, we must be participants to merit the even more sublime blessings of toleration and forgiveness in our societies. To express gratitude for these “higher angels” of our nature, I suggest, is something to think about on this Thanksgiving Day.
Now, finally, in a blog called “The Middle East and Beyond”, why am I writing about the uneven distribution of genuine tolerance and forgiveness in the world? Oh dear reader, do you really have to ask?