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In rare holiday crossover, ‘Thanksgivukkah’ blends traditions

TAMPA — When Connie Leamond’s clan gathers in Tampa on Thursday, every base will be covered.

The tablecloth covering the dining room table is actually two — one Hanukkah-themed, one Thanksgiving-themed — that were cut in half and combined to make one.

Pilgrim and Indian cutouts will be joined by dreidels, or spinning tops, and an autumn cornucopia will be overflowing with Hanukkah gelt (chocolate). The menu will be a mash-up of traditional Jewish foods and Thanksgiving fare.

Why not? The convergence of the two holidays won’t happen again for oh … about 78,000 years. The last time was in 1888.

“We just want to have fun with it,” Leamond says. “Both are festive, lighthearted holidays that give thanks for our freedom. They go together quite naturally.”

The rare occurrence is triggering mass-marketing campaigns, quirky merchandise and culinary creations that signify both holidays, such as sweet potato latkes, pumpkin-filled doughnuts and challah-stuffed turkey. It’s also inspired a name coined by a Boston woman — Thanksgivukkah.

And what would a pop culture craze be without its own Facebook page and Twitter handle?

Hanukkah, a minor holiday in the Jewish tradition, begins tonight at sundown and runs for eight days. It celebrates the ancient victory of the Macabees, a small band of Jewish fighters, against the Greek Assyrian oppressors. When they liberated the temple from the invaders, the Maccabees found only a small amount of olive oil, just enough to fuel the menorah for a single day.

The oil burned for eight days, defying all logic. Now Jews light a candle each night to recall that miracle.

The all-American holiday known as Thanksgiving originated with the Pilgrims and Puritans, who began emigrating from England in the early 1600s to escape religious persecution in England. They would observe the Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving as a nod to the Almighty for his “many favors and bountiful harvest.”

“You’re not breaking any sacred laws in combining both at the same time,” says Marc Caplan, professor of Yiddish literature, language and culture at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “I like to call this a happy coincidence.”

Normally, Hanukkah comes in December and competes with the Christmas season, Caplan says. That timing elevated its status and gave retailers yet another opportunity to cash in. But that’s mainly a geographical thing: Jews in Israel and Europe, he says, don’t emphasize the gift-giving the way Americans do.

Caplan notes more than 95 percent of Jewish Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, and with the first full day of Hanukkah falling on that day, it makes sense to bring the traditions together.

He says the food bloggers “are having a field day” with it, creating hybrid menu items. He’s planning on making a cranberry horseradish sauce. “Though my kids won’t go for that at all,” he says.

Dina Dubrowski of Chabad of South Tampa offers classes throughout the year at her “Jewish Boot Camp: The Modern Girl’s Guide to Cooking Like A Jewish Grandmother.” Earlier this month, she dedicated a session on Thanksgivukkah recipes.

“It’s all good,” her husband, Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski, says of the mash-up. “Beyond the food, we’re always teaching the children to cherish freedom and respect others. That message is applicable and timely for both holidays. They blend seamlessly with each other.”

Hanukkah takes center stage tonight with the annual Jewish Heritage Night at the Tampa Bay Lightning game at the Forum. A menorah will be lit at 6:45 p.m. at Ford Thunder Alley in front of the arena, and those who buy the $30 package will get a kosher meal, light-up dreidel glasses and a Lightning cap.

“We think there’s a great message with the Festival of Lights,” Dubrowski says. “The more we can get families involved through fun activities, the better.”

On Sunday, the Jewish Discovery Center in Brandon partnered with The Home Depot in Riverview for a two-hour menorah-building workshop that included hot latkes and a visit from “Judah Maccabee.” In keeping with the Thanksgiving theme, participants were encouraged to bring canned food items for the “Menorah of Thanks,” which will be distributed to the needy.

“This is a perfect opportunity to be thankful for all the blessings and miracles in our lives,” says the center’s Rabbi Mendel Rubashkin. “I’m hoping people will take the time to recognize the core message of Hanukkah, which often gets overlooked.”

Not all Jews intend to blend the holidays. Daniel Grossman of Wesley Chapel, who brought his 4-year-old daughter to the workshop to make a menorah, says his family will have the traditional Thanksgiving meal, followed by the candle lighting. For workshop participant Caren Katz, an Apollo Beach mother of three, the holidays will be a little more complicated.

Her clan of five is on a two-day trip to be with her husband’s family in Sarasota, then it’s on to Fort Lauderdale on Thursday and Friday to be with her relatives.

“Basically, we’re looking at two Thanksgivings and two Hanukkahs. We’re going to take full advantage of all the festivities and food,” Katz says. But the fun will end next week.

“Let’s just say I’ll be hitting the gym,” she says with a laugh.

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