In the epochal clash of civilizations they were a part of, the Pilgrims have been called brutal, though never less than brave. On Thanksgiving, who was brutal to whom and why, and if Pilgrim or Indian can fairly be judged by 21st century predilections, we are content to leave to others.
But whatever else they were, Pilgrims of the first generation also had an innocence we can emulate 393 years on. Worth repeating this year is the Pilgrim prayer that for many years was read by the late Richard Martinez at events at the Historic Winslow House in Marshfield:
"We thank Thee for this place in which we dwell; for the love that unites us; for the peace accorded us this day; for the hope with which we expect the morrow; for the health, the work, the food, and the bright skies that make our lives delightful.
"Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare us to our friends, soften us to our enemies. Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavours. If it may not, give us strength to encounter that which is to come, that we be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death, loyal and loving to one another."
In 2013, "soften us to our enemies" is a craving of our people that is not yet recognized by political leaders, especially when it is neighbors, fellow citizens and those with whom we disagree who are defined for us as "enemies."
The myth of the first Thanksgiving comes from Edward Winslow in a letter to his friends in England: "...many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted."
A literate source of Pilgrim history is the colony's second governor, William Bradford, who served for 33 years, and wrote "Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647." His account of the first Thanksgiving notes "plenty" and a "store of fowl," but makes no mention of a feast with Massasoit.
What Bradford's life and work do show is an abiding belief in the Hebrew bible as the foundation of the Pilgrims' Christian theology. The first year in 125 in which Thanksgiving eve coincides with the first night of Hanukkah is a good one to note the power of Jewish tradition in the Pilgrim tradition.
In 1645, Bradford opposed legislation permitting other religions. He wasn't a liberal in the modern sense! But in 1650, he began learning Hebrew, writing, "Though I am growne aged, yet I have had a longing desire, to see with my owne eyes ... that most ancient language ... in which God ... spake to the holy patriarchs."
An inscription high on the obelisk marking Bradford's grave in Plymouth is in Hebrew; and the Ebenezers, Levis, Benjamins, Sarahs and Samuels common amongst Duxbury's names these 375 years are a reminder of the Hebrew influence.
For some of this information we are indebted to "A History of Jewish Plymouth," recently published by Karin J. Goldstein of Plimoth Plantation. It contains many characters – the Toabes, for example – who are well-known in Duxbury. The most moving story is of Rabbi Samuel A. Friedman of Congregation Beth Jacob.
In 1938, the Christian clergy of Plymouth answered Kristallnacht – the destruction of Jewish property in Germany – by inviting Rabbi Friedman to preach the Thanksgiving sermon down in the pit, inches from Plymouth Rock itself, where the annual religious commemoration was then held.
Their act – far ahead of the nation's elected leaders – is one to give thanksgiving for.