U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving: Jews, Separatists, and American Myth and Symbol

thanksgivukkah-kippahOn November 21, 1954, Los Angeles radio listeners who tuned in to KFWB for “The Community Hour,” heard a special segment that the station called “Our Cultural Community.” “In celebration of the coming holiday of Thanksgiving,” read the KFWB announcer, “we present a play written for the occasion by Mrs. Ruth Maizlish.” Ruth Maizlish, born Rivka Moskowitz in the Polish Pale of Settlement in 1904, immigrated to the United States on the eve of the First World War. Forced to change her name from the hebrew, Rivka, in order to satisfy New York public schools, and watching her father, a rabbi, struggle as an over-worked and underpaid garment worker in Manhattan’s lower east side, Ruth experienced the challenges and hardships facing Jews and Jewish culture in America. She also experienced a new culture that thrilled her, as she grew up peering through a hole in the fence around Ebbets Field to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1938 she learned the value of her prized American citizenship when she traveled to Germany in a fruitless attempt to get her family out of Europe. Ruth became an activist for Civil Rights and women’s rights in the United States, proudly and enthusiastically helping to shape the country she loved. Yet voting and baseball (the two words my students consistently shout out first when I ask them “what is American culture?”) were not enough to make Ruth an American, to solve the problem of her stolen given name or her father’s struggle to find work and observe the sabbath on Saturdays. To become American, Ruth needed to find herself in the American past, to adopt American myth and American symbols as her own. To make this process more than mere assimilation, like the changing of her name from Rivka to Ruth, however, she needed to see America find itself in her world. Ruth’s play, A Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving, represents a fascinating attempt to remake American myth and symbol as Jewish myth and symbol, to integrate– perhaps too easily– Jewish experience into the American narrative.
It is an evening in late November of the year 1920,” the narrator sets the scene for listeners, “Mendel David, a factory worker about forty years old, comes home to his small flat on New York’s east side.”1 In the opening scene, Mendel returns from night classes at Americanzation school and greets his wife, Bashe. Mendel is continuing night classes even though, after six years, he has finally become a citizen. Arriving home too late to see his children, Mendel echoes a complaint from Ruth’s father, from so many fathers in 1920 on New York’s lower east side: “I never see my children, all week. The shop, the shop. They’re asleep when I come home; they’re asleep when I get up.”2 When Bashe blames the night classes, Mendel is defensive. He conveys his admiration for his teacher, Miss Adams, and the joy he gets from learning about American history. This week in late November, Mendel has been learning about Thanksgiving.

MENDEL: (Tenderly) You look so beautiful tonight…like when you were a girl and used to meet me by the mill. Remember Bashele?
BASHE: (Tenderly) I remember…….. (suddenly suspicious) What is it you want, Mendel?
MENDEL: (Innocently) I want nothing. I just wanted to tell you that Miss Adams said that on Thanksgiving day, that is the day after tomorrow, all the Americans, the real Americans, the Yankees, eat a special dinner to give thanks to God, a Thanksgiving day dinner!
BASHE: Very nice…. Let them eat in health.
MENDEL: But Bashe, you don’t understand. Now that we are citizens, real Americans, I would like that we, you and I and the children, should eat such a Thanksgiving dinner too. To thank God for…… for bringing
us to America, too!3

Bashe, of course, does not know how to cook a Thanksgiving dinner. She worries that it might involve non-kosher food, but Mendel assures her that he would never make her cook something not kosher. “The dinner,” Mendel learned in night school, “must have turkey and pumpkin pie.” Neither Bashe nor Mendel know what a pumpkin is, but Mendel begs her to find out, to ask in the market, to “look it up in our English-Jewish dictionary.” “And without your pumpkin pie you can’t have a holiday?” she asks, declaring sarcastically, “He must eat pumpkin pie to feel like an American!” Mendel explains through analogy, telling Bashe that just like she eats matzah on Passover, she might eat pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. “When I eat matzo on Passover,” testifies Mendel, “I feel like a Jew– and when I will eat pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, I’ll feel like an American!”4

Bashe’s skepticism about Americanization school and her ignorance about Thanksgiving frame the story. Can Bashe, with her kosher kitchen and her unfamiliarity with pumpkins, make a Thanksgiving dinner? Can Jews become American?

Just as Mendel goes to night school to learn about Thanksgiving, his oldest son, Yankel, learns about Thanksgiving in American public school, and goes to Hebrew school at night to study for his Bar Mitzvah. Yankel tells his father that he will read from Issiah for his Bar Mitzvah, and recites a passage, no doubt one that Ruth carefully chose: “From the east will I bring thy seed, and from the west will I gather thee. I will say to the south, Withhold not; bring my sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth.” Mendel promises his son that he will stay home from work on Thanksgiving; he will help his son study for his Bar Mitzvah, and they “will have a good American Thanksgiving dinner to thank God.”5 Through Americanization school and Hebrew school, both Mendel and Yankel are become Jewish Americans, and they will celebrate Thanksgiving and study Issiah together.

Opportunity for conflict arises just once in the play, when Mendel’s sweatshop boss, Mr. Cranon, refuses to let him have Thanksgiving day off. “What’s Thanksgiving to you, Mendel David?” Cranon sneers. “We have enough trouble with you,” he berates Mendel. “You don’t come to work on Saturdays, either; your Sabbath, you call it. You are a Jew, and now you want to be an American! What are you?” demands Cranon. “I am a Jewish American, Mr. Cranon!” Mendel proclaims, adding, “I know my rights. Thanksgiving is a legal holiday, and you can’t fire me; the Union won’t let you!”6 While thus acknowledging the Cranons who would make it difficult, or impossible, to be an American Jew, Ruth simply has Mendel assert that he can be both, and in steps “the Union,” deus ex machina, to provide the protection that allows Mendel to be Jewish, American, and employed. Certainly, this would have been no guarantee in 1920, union or not.

Beginning with the monumental problem of whether Jews can become American, the play proceeds to resolve all tension as Bashe, Mendel, and the radio listeners learn that there is in fact little difference between Calvinist Separatists sailing for the New World and Mendel’s desire to become an American, between Bashe’s kitchen and the feast of Thanksgiving. Jews were Americans all along.

You know Bashe,” lectures Mendel, “the early Americans, the Pilgrims, who came here in the Mayflower, were fine people; fine religious Christians– and (somewhat surprised) they gave their children Hebrew names! They had troubles, too– plenty troubles. That’s why they had a Thanksgiving Day to thank God for bringing them to America. Even with the troubles, it was still better here because they were free.” Not only does Bashe’s and Mendel’s experience now reflect the oldest American experience, but the Pilgrims have become a little Jewish, even giving their children Hebrew names.7 Indeed, in the climax of the play, the transformation of seventeenth-century Separatists into Jews is complete, as Mendel listens to Miss Adams lecture in night school the day before Thanksgiving. After telling the story of Thanksgiving tradition including the Pilgrims in 1621, John Winthrop a decade later, Thanksgiving in the Continental Army, and President Lincoln creating the official national holiday in 1864, Miss Adams turns to the festival’s origins. The Israelites, she explains, also set apart days of thanksgiving. “The oldest record is the feast of the tabernacles, also known as Succoth,” Miss Adams states. “In the Bible,” she continues, “in the book of Leviticus, we find the command: When ye have gathered in the fruit of the land, ye shall keep a feast unto the Lord.” Ecstatic, Mendel interrupts his teacher. “Why, Miss Adams, we Jews just celebrated Succos last month! . . . We do that every year,” exclaims Mendel, “we have been doing that for thousands of years! And to think that the American holiday and the Jewish holiday are the same– both a Thanksgiving for a good harvest. Succos and Thanksgiving!” Mendel’s epiphany is not enough to drive the point home, apparently. Miss Adams affirms, “They are the same. Undoubtedly the Pilgrims, who were devout Christians and constant readers of the Bible, used the ancient Jewish holiday of Succoth as a model for the American Thanksgiving.” She continues: “The early settlers as well as the latest arrivals, all the people coming to America from many lands have contributed greatly to American culture and customs. Immigrants have given, as well as received.”8 The Pilgrims have become Jewish, and, by extension, John Winthrop, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln are all part of a Jewish Thanksgiving narrative. At the end of the play, Miss Adams recites a poem by American poet Alice Williams Brotherton, and Mendel offers a psalm. American texts become Jewish texts, Jewish texts become American. Miss Adams is invited to Mendel’s house for Thanksgiving where she will teach Bashe how to make a pumpkin pie. Mendel and Bashe become American, and, most fascinating, the Pilgrims, reduced to readers of the Old Testament, become Jewish.

What is remarkable about this play is the complete absence of conflict, and the alacrity with which Ruth resolves the question of whether Jews can become American. Writing in 1954 from a beautiful home in Westwood, Los Angeles, where her husband and her sons no longer had encounters with the Cranons of the world, Ruth had, to a great extent, experienced the successful resolution of that question, and may have simply written from this perspective. Yet she wrote A Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving for KFWB radio, a station launched in 1925 by Sam Warner of Warner Brothers, and, since 1950, owned by Ruth’s husband, Harry Maizlish. To their anger and dismay, Ruth and Harry saw several of their colleagues from radio and television blacklisted or subpoenaed before HUAC. A year before she wrote A Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving, Ruth was livid about the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In the midst of this conflict, touching American Jews in particular, it is surprising that Ruth’s play allows Jews and America to fit so unproblematically together. Turkey and pumpkin happen to be kosher. But what would Mendel and Bashe have done if they were not?

A Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving reflects Ruth’s ideal America, her vision for a just society, as important as ever in 1954, based upon the philosophy of pluralism so important to Jews in the mid-twentieth century, and expressed in Miss Adams’ assertion that “all the people coming to America from many lands have contributed greatly to American culture and customs. Immigrants have given, as well as received.”9 In her play, Ruth created a fictional, ideal America where such pluralism could thrive. Aside from fiction that in 1920 a union could prevent Mendel from losing his job at the sweatshop, Ruth chose to give Mendel’s children the given names of her father’s children. In the play they are Yankel, Chaya, Reisel, and Rivka; in reality, these Americans were forced to live as Joseph, Hellen, Rhoda, and of course, Ruth.

A Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving remains a valuable example of an immigrant’s desire to universalize American myths and symbols, to make them apply to everyone– “sons from afar . . . daughters from the ends of the earth.”10 This desire is still powerful– witness the manic glee over the coincidence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving falling on the same day this year– and still contested– observe the bitter debates over history curriculum and “ethnic studies” in public schools. It is the work of intellectual historians to both preserve and examine the tension that Ruth too easily resolves in her play, and understand the longing and vision behind the project to erase that tension and universalize America.
_____________________________

1 Ruth Maizlish, A Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving (radio KFWB), 1954, 1.

2 Maizlish, 2.

3 Maizlish, 4.

4 Maizlish, 7.

5 Maizlish, 8.

6 Maizlish, 11.

7 Maizlish, 3-4.

8 Maizlish, 16.

9 Ibid.

10 Issiah, quoted in Maizlish, 8.


2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I love the essay–the playfulness and seriousness at the same time. You carry an honored name, Rivka, and you do it honor.

    “Let them eat in health!” And we, too.

  2. Rivka,

    I love the way you brought Ruth’s play and current attitudes together to create a resolution for cultural differences.

    I have never heard about Ruth’s play. Thank you, it was great for me to learn that and have you, her granddaughter, comment on it and bring it to life again.

    Congratulations,

    Barbara

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