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When turkey met latke: Thanksgivukkah is a once-in-a-lifetime celebration

FamilyHanukkahThanksgiving

Brace yourself for the epic convergence of two holidays — a celebration of rich dishes, piles of sweets and family togetherness the likes of which have never before been seen and won't be repeated for more than 77,000 years.

Thanksgivukkah is coming.

Latkes with cranberry sauce. Turkey-shaped menorahs. Cornucopias stuffed with dreidels.

Thanks to quirks of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will coincide this month for the first time since 1888, back when celebrations of both holidays were more muted. The next time the holidays will match up is the year 79,811.

Why the long gap?

"Nobody understands it," said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation. The short answer, according to Wohlberg, is that Nov. 28 is the earliest possible date for Hanukkah and the latest possible for Thanksgiving.

Add to that the complexities of the Jewish lunar calendar: It repeats on a 19-year-cycle, has occasional leap months and grows out of sync with the Gregorian calendar by four days every millennium. Soon you realize why no one understands, Wohlberg said. And anyway, why worry about calendars when there is so much fun to be had?

Although Hanukkah is sometimes seen as being the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, the holiday's underlying themes have more in common with Thanksgiving, Wohlberg explained.

"The concept of Hanukkah is a concept of thanksgiving," he said. "Hanukkah marks the first victory over religious persecution. On Thanksgiving, we're celebrating living in a country that has allowed us to have that freedom."

And, Wohlberg added, there is nothing that prevents observant Jews from mixing the two festivities. Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, but a "a national holiday and one Jews should feel very good celebrating."

That has led to an explosion of creativity.

Search the term "Thanksgivukkah" online and you'll find baking recipes for turkey-shaped challah and pecan pie rugelach and instructions for making yarmulkes with pilgrim buckles and pumpkin menorahs. It's no wonder the website Buzzfeed has proclaimed it "The Best Holiday of All Time."

Locally, the Bolton Street Synagogue is celebrating with a pre-Thanksgivukkah potluck and latke competition. Wohlberg's Beth Tfiloh Congregation is setting off fireworks. And Joe Edwardsen, executive chef and founder of Joe Squared pizza, is throwing a pre-Thanksgivukkah bash Nov. 21 with live music and a huge spread that includes mulled wine, turkey legs confit and the decidedly non-kosher treat of bacon-wrapped whole turkeys.

"It's my two favorite holidays coming together," said Edwardsen.

Donna Oser has already made three turkey-shaped menorahs for her relatives. The Silver Spring grandmother affixed the nine Hanukkah candles to the tail feathers of a metal turkey frame she found at a craft store. She added a candle shaped like a dreidel and a needlepoint commemorating the date, and voila — a "menurkey" was born.

"For me, it's a labor of love," said Oser, who also helped her two young granddaughters make a menorah from baby pumpkins. "It's a special year and a unique year."

Her daughter, Marci Wertlieb, is debating whether to experiment with some of the more adventurous recipes that blend foods associated with each holiday.

"I was thinking of the Manischewitz-brined turkey," said Wertlieb, referring to the sugary, purple kosher wine. "But I'm concerned my kids won't eat pink or red turkey. They're already picky eaters."

Oser and Wertlieb are planning some kid-friendlier recipes, such as potato pancakes with cranberry chutney and doughnuts — a traditional Hanukkah treat — instead of pie.

Wohlberg said this would be a good year to try frying the turkey. Since Hanukkah commemorates a miracle in which a small vial of oil managed to keep the flame in the Temple burning for eight days, Hanukkah foods, like latkes and doughnuts, are traditionally fried in oil.

In Baltimore, another important event will make the day all the more momentous: The Ravens are playing their arch rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, that evening.

Public relations maven Sandy Hillman and her husband, Bob, will be welcoming 12 relatives from Pittsburgh for the meal and game.

"We're going to do Thanksgivukkah dinner, Hanukkah gift-giving and then everyone is going to the game," said Hillman. "It's a Thanksgiving trifecta."

The Hillmans expect to have about two dozen people at their Guilford home, where Thanksgiving dinner will feature some Hanukkah treats such as corned beef and latkes.

Hillman is still figuring out how to decorate the table, perhaps with a cornucopia filled with dreidels or turkey-shaped dreidels, she said.

For families with young children, the early start to Hanukkah means they'll need to shop for toys before Black Friday's deep discounts begin.

"I told my kids they're getting all the good stuff on the eighth day of Hanukkah," said Amy Halushka, a writer and editor from Lutherville.

Some have decided to mark the holiday with charitable donations. Liz Glass, a stay-at-home mother from Annapolis, doesn't plan to give Hanukkah gifts on Thanksgiving; instead, she'll donate the money to buy a turkey dinner for a family in need.

Many Jewish families say the best part of Thanksgivukkah is that they'll be able to celebrate both holidays with extended family.

Lisa Spritzer, an engineering firm manager, has had pretty low-key Thanksgiving and Hanukkah celebrations over the past couple of years. Her college-age son rarely has time off around Hanukkah, and the family tends to scatter for Thanksgiving.

But this year, in honor of Thanksgivukkah, "I called my sister and said, 'Let's do it all,' " said Spritzer, of Reisterstown.

Her son, a senior at Salisbury University, has several days off for Thanksgiving. And more than 15 members of the family will gather this year to celebrate the holidays with latkes with gravy and a noodle kugel.

Other families plan to devote Wednesday evening to celebrating Hanukkah. Jewish holidays begin at sundown, which means that while Thursday, Nov. 28, is the first full day of Hanukkah, the holiday begins Wednesday evening.

As one of the most malleable of Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is well suited to being blended with another celebration, said Andrew Marc Caplan, a professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture at the Johns Hopkins University.

"Hanukkah is the holiday in the Jewish calendar that has become the receptacle of whatever the prevailing cultural narrative is," said Caplan.

Zionists, said Caplan, embrace the nationalist theme in the holiday, which celebrates, among other things, the Maccabean Revolt, in which a small army of Jews overthrew their Greek rulers in the second century B.C. The story of people throwing off oppressors appeals to socialists, he said.

And in America, "Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas," he said.

While Jews have traditionally exchanged token gifts of a few coins on Hanukkah, the custom of giving presents on each of the eight nights of the holiday originated 70 to 80 years ago in the United States, Caplan said.

Jewish leaders, who were concerned that some Jewish families had begun setting up Christmas trees, encouraged Hanukkah gifts to "dissuade people from embracing more elements of Christmas," Caplan said.

But Hanukkah, which is not a particularly solemn or important part of the Jewish faith, has much more in common with Thanksgiving than Christmas, the day on which Christians celebrate the birth of their savior, Caplan said.

Spritzer, the Reisterstown woman planning the family celebration, couldn't be more excited about the once-in-a-lifetime confluence.

But she does see one downside: Once Hanukkah ends, there's a long wait until New Year's.

"When Christmas rolls around, Jewish people are going to feel a little let down," she said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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