The Pilgrims in Our Family–Another Look at Thanksgiving Day

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Three hundred years and counting—that is the time between pilgrim voyages in our family.  Let me explain.

As a Jewish parent, I was delighted decades ago to discover Barbara Cohen’s fine book for young readers, Molly’s Pilgrim (1985; 1998; 2005).  Molly has difficulty explaining Thanksgiving Day and its history, so important in elementary school, to her Russian-born mother.  Only when that Jewish woman realizes that the Pilgrims were after all just immigrants is she able to help Molly with her homework—making a Pilgrim doll.  The doll they craft, though, looks as though it might have just arrived at Ellis Island, not Plymouth Rock!  Molly and her classmates learn unexpected lessons about cultural differences and contemporary pilgrims.   That they also learn that Plymouth Colony’s Pilgrims may have modeled their first Thanksgiving on a Jewish holiday is a surprise bonus.  Their teacher points out the similarities between Judaism’s harvest-time Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles described in the Pilgrims’  “Old Testament,” and Thanksgiving.   Our son Daniel found this surprising, too.  It gave him a new way of thinking about his great-grandparents, my grandparents, who immigrated to this country from Ukraine and Lithuania around 1910.

But he had more to learn about the pilgrims in our family.  As my mother-in-law, Frances Foss Larsson, proudly pointed out, Daniel was a direct descendent of two of the men who had stepped onto Plymouth Rock in 1620 C.E.   Richard Warren and Thomas Rogers, ancestors on her side of the family, survived the gut-wrenching 66 day voyage of the Mayflower to the New World.   They were among the 102 passengers officially listed on that ship’s manifest.  Yankee determination had helped Daniel’s grandmother in the pre-Internet 1970s complete and document genealogical research that traced her lineage.   After the Society of Mayflower Descendants accepted her research, she proudly joined this group and later enrolled Daniel as a junior member, too. 

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Yet pride is surely not the only emotion linked to this heritage.  Another, closer look at history reveals the shameful treatment of native peoples by the Pilgrims.  This is epitomized by the fate of the Wampanoag, who joined the Pilgrims in that so-called first Thanksgiving.  Once numbering between 12,000 to 24,000 strong, the Wampanoag today have only between 3,000 to 5,000 tribal members.  They were starved, killed, and ‘outlawed’ out of existence by the Pilgrims and their followers—people with leaders like minister Increase Mather, who wrote that “Indians are speaking Apes.”   The Pilgrims are, contrary to popular opinion, the badly behaved immigrants in our multi-branched family tree.  (My own The Wampanoag and Their History [2005] is just one of many books for youngsters today pointing out some hard truths behind the United States’ festive “Turkey Day.”)  

Recently, Daniel himself lived for four years in a foreign land—sojourner rather than pilgrim, but newcomer nonetheless.  The “Thanksgivings” celebrated in the Islamic republic of Turkey take place at the end of the holy month of Ramadan and after the sacred journey or haj to Mecca.  Our son and— and to a lesser degree, we—lived with religious and national rhythms foreign to our family’s dual Jewish and Christian heritage.   Yet this experience was a sobering and uplifting reminder of what people world-wide share on our journeys through life.  To recast the words of poet William Butler Yeats, each of us has a “pilgrim soul” that may —indeed, should—be cherished.    

 

 

 

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