In search of a more patriotic Thanksgiving

Program aims to add meaning to holiday after terror attacks

November 23, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Meyerhoffs spent much of their Thanksgiving like any other family, gorging on turkey, joking, squabbling and remembering. But at the behest of family member Lee Hendler, they also tried something new, something Hendler hopes families across the nation will begin doing every Thanksgiving.

The Meyerhoffs put off eating for about 30 minutes in their home to reflect on American history through stories, recitations of famous documents and song.

"On this Thanksgiving, we are all pioneers doing something new together," said patriarch Harvey M. Meyerhoff. "Why do we need a special ceremony for Thanksgiving and why now? Sept. 11, 2001, was a tragic and traumatic day for our country. ... Throughout our history, Americans have faced and overcome critical challenges. That knowledge is reassuring. We appreciate that what sustained our ancestors can also sustain us. We come to the table this Thanksgiving hungry for our traditional meal. But we also come hungry to understand our unique story as a people."

Hendler believes that Americans want their nation's most widely celebrated holiday to glorify more than football, turkey and Christmas shopping.

The attacks Sept. 11 changed the country's priorities, she says, and now is the time for Americans to embrace a more meaningful existence. With emotional and financial backing from her prominent Baltimore family, she has set out to change the holiday.

She has joined two California professors to write a booklet that outlines how families might celebrate the holiday in this new, patriotic way. In the past two weeks, she and her colleagues have distributed the booklets to 5,000 families in Baltimore and California. If the idea generates positive response, she hopes to take it nationwide by Thanksgiving 2002.

Yesterday, Hendler and 15 members of her family, young and old, gave a first try to the program, titled "We The People Give Thanks." Beginning with Harvey Meyerhoff, everyone offered something, from 9-year-old Julia Meyerhoff's solo on the first verse of "America the Beautiful" to Zoh Hieronimus' commentary on the true meanings of bits of the Constitution.

A few hesitant pauses aside, the family seemed to enjoy the exercise. "It's got a good rhythm," Hendler said after seeing it performed. "I think it will get more meaningful as people do it more and more. Let's put it this way. At least people weren't drumming their fingers on the table in boredom."

Hendler understands that many will be skeptical about seeing a favorite holiday change. "Is every American dying to do something more meaningful?" she asked. "No. But are millions searching for something more? Absolutely. Could this help create a meaningful change? Absolutely."

The family isn't looking to impose the ritual on anyone, added Hieronimus, Hendler's sister and a WOLB-AM radio host.

"The purpose is to show people what we all have in common to be thankful for. Our philosophy is that we're giving people the opportunity to celebrate this way, not forcing them to. We don't have a predetermined outcome in mind," said Hieronimus, who had the meal at her Owings Mills home.

The guidebook offers readings that trace American history from the Pilgrim landings to the Revolution, and touches on every tenet of the Bill of Rights. If the program seems unwieldy, families can choose parts they want to do, Hendler said.

"It was a little long, but I'm sure it will get quicker with practice," Harvey Meyerhoff said. "The real point is how enduring and moving these messages are. It moves me to tears and I hope it has the same affect on a lot of other people."

Hendler's vision turns on the notion that many Americans, unfamiliar with their country's rich narrative history, aren't sure what to be thankful for.

"We The People Give Thanks" began 10 years ago with a California pediatrician who felt people wanted a more meaningful way to celebrate Thanksgiving. During of the Persian Gulf war, Lawrence Neinstein approached his friend Ron Wolfson of Los Angeles' University of Judaism, and asked Wolfson to help him write a Thanksgiving Seder.

The pair admired the way Passover rituals brought Jewish history to life and figured Thanksgiving would be a good time for a similar remembrance of American history. They never finished the project, but the attacks Sept. 11 got them thinking of it again and they contacted Hendler to see if she would help.

The idea immediately sparked her interest she said, because her late mother, Lyn Meyerhoff, had loved Thanksgiving most among American holidays and also had been a fervent patriot. "This is something my mother would have absolutely flipped over," Hendler said.

Hendler, Wolfson and Neinstein collaborated on the guidebook. Hendler persuaded her siblings to give the program a $15,000 Meyerhoff Foundation grant to distribute the booklets in 5,000 households in Baltimore and Los Angeles. Each booklet includes a questionnaire, and Hendler hopes the responses will tell her and her colleagues how the program worked, and how they might change it.

She feels confident, however, that the idea will touch others as it touched her.

"We have to begin to confront how impoverished our lives are," she said. "Sept. 11 highlighted that in a remarkable way. Is football, eating and shopping all there is? If it is, what did all those people die for? I think Americans are hungry for something more."

Information: www.wethepeople givethanks.org.

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