The Yiddish tale behind the Thanksgiving turkey

Jordan Palmer

Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday, and for generations, many Jews had concerns regarding their ability to celebrate. That’s why prominent Orthodox rabbis of the mid-20th century, including Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, gave Thanksgiving their hechsher (seal of approval). Shari Rabin, associate professor of Jewish studies and religion at Oberlin, said that American Jews are comfortable with Thanksgiving for the most part because “it’s not as directly connected to Paganism or Christianity as Halloween or Christmas.”


But did you know that among the explanations about why American’s eat Turkey on this beloved holiday, comes one from a more than half-a-century-old Yiddish story. Tis true.

According to writer Leah Folk, socialist Jews have the best explanation. “’Farvos est men indik tenksgiving’” was originally published by the Workmen’s Circle, in a now-classic language book for kids, Yiddishe Kinder,” wrote Folk. “The story has a heavy allegorical hand and a hard lesson for nativists.

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The setting: five birds – a rooster, a chicken, a duck, a goose, and a turkey — live together in a barnyard. They plow the ground; it’s hard work. They tell each other stories, help each other find food, and for the most part live together peacefully.

But there’s one sort of jerk bird, the turkey. He blusters and struts, and to whomever will listen he screams, “You all are from across the sea! I’m the only American here!” Whatever you say, man, say the other birds. The tables turn when it comes time to pick the bird for the big “American yom-tov” — Thanksgiving.  Who better to cook up than the real American?

Is Turkey Kosher?

According to an article published by the ANU – Museum of the Jewish People, The Bible includes a list of birds that are not kosher and cannot be eaten, and later rabbinic authorities then stated that in order for a bird to be kosher, it must have an established tradition of Jews eating it and considering it to be kosher.

The turkey is not listed among the forbidden birds. However, once it was discovered by westerners, thousands of years later, and Jews began asking about eating it, there was no established tradition that it was kosher.

But, lucky for you Turkey lovers, it was decided that turkey was similar enough to the chicken that it could be considered kosher.