Just like last year, and the Thanksgiving before that, more than a dozen of Eliza Gepner’s personalized place cards lined her grandparents’ dinner table Thursday, each with its own tiny turkey fashioned from tissue paper and construction paper, and her family’s names printed in red marker.
But because of a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of the secular holiday and the first day of Hanukkah, dinner guests found menorahs on the back of their cards this year.
“You get presents and there’s pumpkin pie,” said 6-year-old Eliza, her assessment of the double holiday.
Thursday marked the first time since the 19th century that Thanksgiving and Hanukkah overlapped, and the last time they would for at least another 70,000 years.
That meant before the turkey, Eliza and her family exchanged gifts and together lit grandparents Jeff and Carol Gepner’s menorah in Madison’s Nakoma neighborhood.
Instead of diluting either holiday by celebrating both, Eliza’s mother, Jamie Gepner, said Hanukkah falling on Thanksgiving break gave her family a chance to enjoy it for a bit longer.
“(Hanukkah) doesn’t tend to be on days we have off ... it’s kind of a bonus to get to see everybody and light the menorah together,” she said. adding that so often, she and her husband, Adam, are squeezing in celebrating between the end of the school day and the beginning of bedtime for their three children.
“It kind of feels a little more leisurely (this year), and not crammed in between life,” Gepner said. “This year I’m not afraid to leave the candles burning.”
Saul “Simcha” Prombaum, a rabbi in La Crosse and whose daughter, Talya, is married to Jeff and Carol’s son, Josh Gepner, said the aligning holidays could provide a rare chance to dispel some misconceptions he said often surround the Jewish holidays.
“I have served the congregation in La Crosse for the last 31 years, and I was always taken aback when someone would ask me, ‘Do Jewish people celebrate Thanksgiving?’ and I’m wondering why are they asking me that? They wouldn’t ask me that about Fourth of July,” Prombaum said. “And then I realized that the major part of the problem was the December holidays.”
Prombaum said for many non-Jewish people, Hanukkah represents a Jewish Christmas of sorts.
“So, one of the things I find so interesting is having this rare convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is that it gives Jewish people a chance to show that we celebrate most all holidays,” he said.
For Racheli Komar-Aziz, the overlap introduced to her a holiday she knew nothing about. Racheli and her husband, Mickey, are from Israel and living in Madison for the next two years as part of an Israeli emissary program that allows them to visit Jewish communities across the world.
On Thursday evening, the couple and about a dozen members of the Jewish Federation of Madison gathered at Ken and Laura Felz’s house for a Thanksgiving and Hanukkah potluck.
Along with two 12-pound turkeys, the crew fried up potato latkes and Mickey made Sufganiyot, a traditional Israeli dish of doughnuts, among other things. They lit menorahs placed throughout the home, including one Mickey created out of eight bottles of New Glarus’ Two Women beer, and played a game of dreidel before eating dinner.
“It took me a while to understand the story of (Thanksgiving),” said Komar-Aziz. “But the basic thing is putting friends together — and that’s why it’s good.”
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