I live on land that I purchased in the city of Albany, New York in 1994.
I live on land whose previous owners included African Americans and American Jews who moved to Albany, New York at different times in the late 1970’s and early 80’s.
I live on land that is part of what became Albany, NY, the capital of the Empire state in the newly formed United States, in 1797.
I live on land named by the British in honor of James, Duke of York and Albany, when they claimed it from the Dutch in 1664.
I live on land named Beverwyck by Dutch colonists in the 1640’s.
I live on land that was once widely settled by the Mohawk Tribe, guardians of the far eastern portion of the great Iroquois confederacy, who preceded all of us in this area since at least the 1500’s.
I live on land that has been the home of indigenous peoples since they settled in what is now New York 13,000 years ago.
I live on this land as the not too pleasant result of European colonial expansions that displaced or subjugated those native peoples during the creation and gradual expansion of America.
I live on this land as the thankful result of an immigration policy that was open to my ancestors resettling in this country, along with millions of other people who wove the tapestry of ethnic and cultural diversity that has become America.
The dispossession of native peoples by different colonizers in our area was not a brutal genocidal affair like the Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from the southeastern United States that began in 1830. But let’s acknowledge this colonization for what it was: dispossession.
The American experiment with immigrants was not free of its own historical demons. Black slaves were forcibly dragged to our shores as early as 1619, and the racist legacy ensuing from slavery in our nation continues to poison us. But let’s also acknowledge other aspects of American immigration for what they have turned out to be: an opportunity for many other people to escape poverty and oppression and to be free.
Though based upon the biblical holiday of Sukkot, the autumn harvest celebration and expression of gratitude, Thanksgiving is quintessentially, mythologically American. It is family, feasting, and football; it is pumpkin pie, pilgrims, and peace treaties with the natives. It rightly adjures Americans to express gratitude for the beautiful place that America has become. Yet it also wrongly obscures the truth about the ugly places from which America came.
That is why I would like to rename this holiday, and thus possibly change its focus.
Instead of calling it Thanksgiving, I would like to call it Acknowledgement.
The Hebrew name for this holiday is Yom Hodaya. Yom means “the day of.” Hodaya is based upon a Hebrew verb, l’hodot, which means simultaneously to thank and to acknowledge. The connection between these two verbs is apparent enough. When we express thanks, we acknowledge someone or something with gratitude. Yet a deeper, more fraught relationship between the two words also exists. In ancient Jewish legal sources, l’hodot often refers to acknowledging that someone else’s opinion is correct and yours is not: that what you thought was true is in fact false, or at least not the whole truth.
Renaming Thanksgiving as Acknowledgement might be a small but effective step in the direction of a more mature, nuanced appraisal of this American family in which we live. It would call us to remember with gratitude America’s enlightened, if deeply flawed present; it would also challenge us to acknowledge America’s past of deep and enduring flaws too often buried under the dark brush of our willful collective amnesia.
Given the simplistic, doctrinal orthodoxies that currently polarize us, I doubt anyone will take up my suggestion anytime soon. There are those of us who interpret American exceptionalism to mean that we are exceptionally good. In varying degrees, they seek to minimize or even expunge the uglier dimensions of America’s history in favor of a pseudo-patriotic mythology of America as John Winthrop’s City Upon A Hill, of America as Robert Frost’s land that was ours before we were the land’s. There are those of us who interpret American exceptionalism to mean that we are incorrigibly bad. In varying degrees, they seek to repudiate the good that America has created because much of her founding was upon the backs of others whom She broke and continues to break.
Doctrinaire certainties are simple, righteous and therefore comforting, but they are imprisoning. I prefer to hold America in my two, uncertain, but hopefully more honest hands: the one of gratitude, the other of acknowledgment.
Gratitude for the freedom and equality that America represents.
Acknowledgment that full freedom and equality have too often, and too often continue to be, denied to indigenous Americans and Americans of color.
Gratitude that our founding ancestors had the rare foresight to fight for a new democracy that has changed the world.
Acknowledgment that those same ancestors’ prejudices allowed them to brutalize Black slaves and demean and kill indigenous peoples whom they saw as savages.
Gratitude that our immigrant ancestors found homes here, even as we are today finding homes for new Afghan immigrants running from oppression.
Acknowledgment that America’s immigrant history is pockmarked by narratives of oppressive and racist policies.
Gratitude that this land is ours.
Acknowledgment that we took it from people who came before us.
I live on land in the land of the free.
I live on land that once belonged to someone else.
A happy Thanksgiving to us all.
An honest Acknowledgment as well.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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