Hanukkah and Thanksgiving overlap this week. The result: 'Thanksgivukkah'

Both holidays pay tribute to national resilience and are celebrated around the family table with rich food, games and fellowship. They just usually don't take place at the same time.

No wonder people are finding Hanukkah and Thanksgiving to be a comfortable match, even if a rare one.

The first day of the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins on Thanksgiving this year (actually starting the evening before), and for many Jewish families locally and beyond, that provides a fitting opportunity to mash up traditions along with potatoes.

"This year really serves as a reminder to me of the idea of giving thanks and being grateful," said Katie Whitlatch of Highland Park. "There's no reason that can't be a focus for every Hanukkah. It's a good opportunity to reinvigorate the holiday."

Her family will be combining some food traditions as well. Normally she makes a sweet potato casserole for Thanksgiving, but this year will be making sweet potato latkes (potato pancakes, traditionally served during Hanukkah). Some people are also planning to use cranberry filling in the jelly doughnuts that are a Hanukkah staple.

"We actually for the last couple of years have been deep-frying turkey anyway" for Thanksgiving, Ms. Whitlatch added. "That has a dual meaning now because of the oil and the Hanukkah."

Hanukkah is rooted in an ancient war for Jewish independence from Greek-Syrian occupiers who had desecrated their temple in Jerusalem.

Tradition says that after Jews retook the temple, they only had enough oil to keep a ritual lamp lit for a single day, but miraculously the supply lasted eight days. In a nod to that tradition, Jews often serve foods in which oil is a featured part of the recipe.

Hanukkah is a minor religious holiday in Judaism, but has gained larger cultural significance in the United States as an alternative winter holiday for Jews during the Christmas season. Also, the ancient struggle for religious freedom resonates with the American narrative -- such as that of the English religious dissidents known as Pilgrims, who settled in New England to pursue their own religious liberty and survived against desperate odds.

Other traditions include lighting a menorah, or candelabra, each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, and playing games with a dreidel, or a square top with Hebrew lettering.

It's been at least a century since the start of Hanukkah -- which is determined by lunar calculations -- coincided with Thanksgiving, always the fourth Thursday of November. The JTA news service said the two are not expected to occur simultaneously again until 2070, then 2165, then in another 70,000 years.

So when Pittsburgh native Dana Reichman Gitell thought about the rare confluence last year, she coined and trademarked the term "Thanksgivukkah." A marketing specialist who lives in suburban Boston, Ms. Gitell pushed all the right buttons and the concept went viral, both on social media and elsewhere. The mayor of Boston recently proclaimed Nov. 28 to be "Thanksgivukkah."

"I was driving to work and came up with the word, and I thought 'this should be a Facebook page,' " Ms. Gitell said.

"Both are festivals of gratitude, so there are a lot of layers and a lot of things in common," she said. "This is an opportunity to celebrate the Jewish American experience and celebrate this country."

Ms. Gitell credits her childhood in Squirrel Hill with establishing her firm footing in Jewish religion and culture.

"I had an incredible childhood in one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the country," she said.

Some have taken up the Thanksgivukkah theme with other word blends, such as planning to use a "menurky" -- a turkey-shaped menorah.

While Hanukkah is a family celebration, it is "usually not the excuse to travel and get together" with extended family, Ms. Whitlatch said. So as she, her husband and son travel to see relatives in New Jersey for Thanksgiving, "this year we have the opportunity to celebrate it and make more of a foodfest."

Lauren Bartholomae, director of the Family Life Department at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, will be traveling to visit her husband's uncle's farm in Ohio, a Thanksgiving tradition they have begun in recent years. Since he and his family are not Jewish, it's a chance to bring "Hanukkah to people who don't know about Hanukkah and have never celebrated it before."

She plans to introduce the menorah lighting, a dreidel game and other activities. "Hanukkah is all about miracles," she said. "You can think about Thanksgiving in the same way."

Ms. Gitell said the overall response to the Thanksgivukkah celebration has been positive. "I think that's because there is some depth to it, and some legitimate religious ties between the two holidays."

She plans to celebrate the once-in-a-lifetime event, but will put it to rest after this year. "I felt in my heart like this was a love letter to America, and an opportunity for American Jews to celebrate both holidays and enjoy them together."

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1416, Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241.

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