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Museum Musings

11.21.17: Giving Thanks - A Beloved American & American Jewish Tradition

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By NMAJH Chief Registrar and Associate Curator Claire Pingel and Curatorial Intern Jackie Bein


George Washington

We all learn in school that the “first thanksgiving” feast in the New World was celebrated by Puritan pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 New England, but Thanksgiving was not officially proclaimed a national “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” until 1789 by new President George Washington. In NMAJH’s gallery about the Revolutionary War period, you can see President Washington’s handwritten proclamation! And now through Thanksgiving weekend, you can see the original Richmond Prayerversion on view.

For this first “official Thanksgiving,” Jacob I. Cohen – a distinguished Jewish citizen of Richmond – transcribed a Hebrew prayer of gratitude for the new nation that was read aloud in Congregation Beth Shalom in Richmond, VA, the first Jewish congregation established after the nation’s founding. At a time when the United States was so very young, the “Richmond prayer," also on view in this gallery, offered “heartfelt praise for the new nation and its leaders.”

Visitors are rewarded for a careful look at the “Richmond Prayer”: the first letters in the middle lines of the poem spell out “Washington.” This is called an “acrostic” and the Richmond prayer is not the only presidential acrostic in our galleries. A few hundred feet away, we display another – Isaac Goldstein’s 1865 memorial to President Abraham Lincoln. Curiously, this has its own connection to Thanksgiving – in 1863, Lincoln established that the fourth Thursday in November would thenceforth be observed as the federal holiday of Thanksgiving. *

This year, when you gather with loved ones for the holiday, try writing your own acrostic poem! Choose a person or place that has had significance in your family’s history, and write a meaningful tribute to them. And while you’re waiting for that all-important feast to be ready, ensure that you make the most of your time with loved ones by uploading those too-easily-forgotten family memories into Re:collection, NMAJH’s new online tool for organizing and sharing your family’s story.

NMAJH wishes you a great holiday!

* This changed only for a few years during the Great Depression, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the observance of Thanksgiving up a week in an attempt to encourage more retail and boost the economy.

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