NOVEMBER 22, 2018 – It’s been a difficult time for the Jewish community. In addition to the horrors of the Pittsburgh shootings, anti-Semitic vandalism continues to hit close to home in Peabody, Salem, Reading, Melrose, and Malden. Thanksgiving, a holiday that invites everyone to take stock of what they’re grateful for, has arrived at a moment when it is badly needed.
Numerous psychological studies suggest gratitude improves mental and physical health, self-esteem, and empathy, and increases mental focus and clarity. Susan Rudman, a Salem psychologist, encourages her patients to look for the positive elements in any given situation.
“In a lot of the treatment plans that we develop these days, it’s important to talk about strengths, and to convey the strengths that clients have that they might not even be aware of,” said Rudman.
Saying “thank you” for good fortune is a fundamental element of Judaism. It is so fundamental, in fact, that the word “Judaism” can be traced to the act of thanks. “Our name comes from Yehudah, who was named after his mother Leah’s thanks in the Bible,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. “So we get our name as sort of the gratitude people.”
The first thing observant Jews do each morning is recite the Modeh Ani, which thanks God for once more allowing them to wake up with their bodies and minds intact. The Modeh Ani is the first of many times Judaism commands its followers to say thank you. There are specific prayers of thanks for just about everything: from eating food, to drinking wine, to witnessing a rainbow.
“The custom of reciting many blessings is intended to help cultivate that attitude of gratitude,” said Meyer.
At every milestone, Jews traditionally recite the Shehecheyanu, which Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody said is a catch-all prayer of gratitude.
“With the Shehecheyanu, we are thankful for bringing us to this moment, this part of our life,” he said. “Every time there’s a simcha or a wonderful moment in life, we say the Shehecheyanu. So really, you could do that for just about everything.”
Perhaps that explains why American Jews embraced the secular Thanksgiving holiday as soon as they arrived in this country, according to Meyer. “It has always been a key observance, and a way where Jews could be fully Jewish, because expression of gratitude is part of our DNA, but also fully American at the same time,” said Meyer. “If you were to look, say, at the resource of the American Jewish Archives, you’ll find Thanksgiving blessings and greetings and sermons going all the way back to the middle part of the 1800s.”
This Thanksgiving, Jews on the North Shore said recent events haven’t made them any less grateful. When asked if she was still grateful to be an American Jew in 2018, Robin Low of Swampscott replied, “Yeah, I still am. I still believe in our country’s institutions, and I still believe that we have great freedoms here, but you have to be eternally vigilant.
“I’m very conscious of not taking things for granted, because you can do all the right things, and still, something bad happens, so you have to be thankful when the good stuff comes along.”
Andrea Mann of Marblehead pointed out how 9/11 changed her relationship to her country. “Before 9/11, I was the least patriotic person there is – I mean, the least,” she said. “Since 9/11, I’m one of the most patriotic. It’s a complete shift – as bad as it is, we have to be so grateful. It’s hard for me not to be patriotic – one event changed my whole feelings.”
Myranne Janoff of Marblehead pointed out that a recent health scare helped her shift her perspective. “It makes you more aware of how much you enjoy your life, and it makes you more aware about the things that you cherish in life,” said Janoff. When asked what she cherished most, Janoff replied that she is most grateful for her family and her health.
Other respondents said they are most grateful for good friends, satisfying careers, and being Jewish.
“I’m grateful to be Jewish – I’m proud that I am, and I feel more strongly than ever that we must keep Judaism alive,” said Low. “It’s a vibrant, living practice, and each of us has a responsibility to continue the story.”
Janoff described how the many prayers of thanks in Judaism have helped remind her to be thankful.
“Judaism helps me recognize and express gratitude for the simple things in life that I’m thankful for, so every time I say a prayer over the bread, I’m grateful that I have bread,” she said. “When I do a blessing over my children, even though they’re quite grown, I think about that, so yes, there is the daily reminder of the things that we’re thankful for by blessing them and bringing them to our focus.”