This year's rare convergence of the secular holiday of Thanksgiving with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah should be good news for potato sales. It seems blasphemous to host a Hanukkah meal without latkes (the Jewish version of the potato pancakes found in almost every ethnic cookbook), and a Thanksgiving feast without mashed potatoes seems anti-American.
So serve them both as side dishes to a banquet offering turkey and brisket. There's room at the table for your Grandma Edna's sweet potatoes with the marshmallow topping and Bubbe Rachel's cheese blintzes. The dessert tray is big enough for traditional helpings of sufganiyot (yummy jelly doughnuts) and pumpkin pie (with yummy whipped cream).
After all, American Jews haven't been able to celebrate a Thanksgiving falling on the first day of Hanukkah since 1888.
"We think it's a lot a fun and a wonderful coincidence," says Rabbi Marc Rudolph, the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville since 2008. "Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. It's one we feel perfectly comfortable celebrating along with Christians and Muslims."
The holiday also is celebrated by Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and native Canadians, who celebrated their Thanksgiving in October.
Rudolph notes that next week's holiday convergence has online merchants hawking "Menurkeys," a menorah in the shape of a turkey with the tail feathers serving as candles. Another fun offshoot of the holiday combo is "The Ballad of Thanksgivukkah" song written and performed by Rudolph's colleague, Rabbi David Paskin of Massachusetts.
"Like applesauce with cranberries, turkey stuffed with fried latkes, it's clear that this is one heck of a mitzvah," read the lyrics of one Paskin verse. "Let's celebrate this great country, religious minorities. Everybody loves Thanksgivukkah."
Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday, but Jews usually celebrate national holidays of the nation where they live. "One of the characteristics of the Jewish people is that we're very adaptable," Rudolph says.
Hanukkah has been around for 2,178 years or so, while Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday just 150 years ago. Because Hanukkah lasts for eight nights, the holiday and Thanksgiving have commingled before. Jews have lit Hanukkah candles on Thanksgivings in 1899 and 1918, and should again in 2070 and 2165, according to Chabad.org, which adds that Texan Jews ("Shalom y'all") also sneaked in a couple more when Texas refused to go along with FDR's short-lived executive decision to move Thanksgiving up a week.
Some Jewish holidays place restrictions on the menu or make dietary demands, such as the requirement to eat matzo at Passover. "Hanukkah is different. There is no religious obligation. There is no need to give anything up," says Rudolph, noting that the ritual of lighting candles is the only requirement. "You're not required to eat a latke."
Admitting that it isn't the healthiest holiday, Rudolph says that many Jews celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah oil by gorging on fried foods.
"This is the perfect opportunity to make a fried turkey or latkes out of sweet potatoes," the rabbi says.
Hanukkah celebrates the military victory of a small band of Jews known as the Maccabees, who reclaimed a Holy Temple from the Greeks and saw their one-day supply of oil to light the menorah burn for eight days. There is some debate about whether the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, but most Americans credit the holiday to pilgrims who arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and wanted to give thanks to God and the helpful Wampanoag tribe for a good harvest.
"That's something the Maccabees and the Pilgrims have in common. They both sacrificed to practice their religions," Rudolph says.
The combo of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah is a much better fit than the more common mingling of Hanukkah with Christmas, although that Christian holiday shares a connection with Rudolph. "My 7th-grade teacher sang 'Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer' to me," recalls Rudolph, who remembers playing his 78-rpm record of Gene Autry singing that holiday classic. "It embarrassed me, but it is my favorite song."
There are far too many recipes blending Thanksgiving and Hanukkah foods to serve in a single meal, but that's where an eight-night holiday comes into play. "Just wait to have it for the other seven days," Rudolph says.
Time it correctly and the final night of Hanukkah and the last leftovers of Thanksgiving could reunite for a December meal featuring a soup made from sage-scented matzo balls, turkey and sweet potatoes.