Meet the woman who coined the term ‘Thanksgivukkah’

A brainstorming session by a Massachusetts-based marketing specialist leads to a new American phenomenon

A Thanksgivukkah T-shirt. (photo credit: courtesy)
A Thanksgivukkah T-shirt. (photo credit: courtesy)

BOSTON — It started in a car. A thought-turned-brainstorming-session while driving. Then it turned into a hobby. Then it turned into $20,000 raised for charity, a multicultural festival in Los Angeles, stories in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, an appearance on Buzzfeed, and almost 13,000 likes on Facebook.

At this point, it is tough to live in America and not know that Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fall on the same night this year. It is also tough to not know that this doesn’t usually happen. That popular wisdom has it we’ve got another 70,000 years to go before this comes up again. (Apparently popular wisdom is wrong.)

But a year ago, it wasn’t a cultural reference point. It was just an oddity Dana Reichman Gitell, a marketing specialist at Hebrew Senior Life in Massachusetts, had noticed on the calendar.

She was driving to work in November 2012, thinking about how a year from then, this was going to be big deal. That it would become a part of pop culture, but also that there would be a more serious aspect to it.

“Really in my heart, even at that early stage,” Reichman Gitell said, “I thought this is also an incredible opportunity to celebrate the Jewish-American experience… To show our gratitude for America for being one of the best places to be Jewish in this world outside of Israel.”

She started pushing words and sounds together and before long had blended the holidays into one term: Thanksgivukkah. She started a Facebook page celebrating the event, then a Twitter feed and a website. Soon, her sister-in-law, Deborah Gitell, joined the project.

Charlie Brown with sidelocks. (photo credit: courtesy)
Charlie Brown with sidelocks. (photo credit: courtesy)

At first it was a way to have fun. A place where Reichman Gitell would post things like her picture of Charlie Brown with side curls celebrating a Charlie Brown Thanksgivukkah.

But the followers and likes started to mount and Dana and Deborah quickly realized they had something significant: A fan base represented a chance to sell merchandise, and selling merchandise meant a chance to raise money for charity.

“We also thought it seems like there should be a retail element to this. Hanukkah’s a gift-giving holiday and in America buying things is how we celebrate,” Reichman Gitell said.

Dana and Deborah teamed up with artist Kim Demarco, as well as with the Judaica retailer, to generate a product line of paraphernalia. Ten percent of sales would go to Mazon, an organization working to combat global hunger.

The sales and follower numbers ticked up on a slow-but-steady pace throughout the year.

But then Buzzfeed happened.

On October 2, 2013, Buzzfeed released a piece titled “How to Celebrate Thanksgivukkah, the Best Holiday of All Time.” and everything kicked into overdrive. Over the next week they went from 2,000 followers on Facebook to 9,000.

The two received a steady stream of interview requests and have now appeared in mainstream press, including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe.

Meanwhile, Moderntribe had to find an additional location and take on more staff to accommodate the demand for Thanksgivukkah merchandise.

Reichman Gitell recently announced that they (in partnership with Woodstock Ventures who gave permission for their famous Woodstock logo to be parodied on some of the products) have raised $20,000 dollars for Mazon thus far. A number that will doubtless creep even higher.

The Thanksgivukkah sisters-in-law, Deborah Gitell (left) and Dana Reichman Gitell, interviewed on Israel's Channel 1 News. (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
The Thanksgivukkah sisters-in-law, Deborah Gitell (left) and Dana Reichman Gitell, interviewed on Israel’s Channel 1 News. (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Gitell was introduced to Craig Taubman, a Jewish musician and activist, who wanted to create a Thanksgivukkah festival in Los Angeles. The festival, which Gitell envisioned as a Purim-like event for Jews, has turned into a sweeping multi-faith celebration.

“We have Jewish artists, but we also have a mariachi band, we’re gonna have a live choir from an African American church… we have a food caterer called Mama’s International Tamales who’s based in that neighborhood. So there’s going to be a lot of different American elements… And really to reflect Thanksgivukkah because Thanksgivukkah is really all about, I think, Jews and immigrants and the melting pot of the United States,” said Gitell.

The event will be hosted November 29 at the Pico Union building, which was originally built as a Temple, then converted to a Welsh Presbyterian Church before being sold to Taubman.

“In the walls of the building is multi-faith and multiculture. It just breaths it. So it’s the perfect place for this type of mashup celebration,” said Taubman.

To date, $12,000 in funding has been raised for the festival.

That multi-faith element  has become an integral part of this holiday.

“I’ve noticed anecdotally,” Reichman Gitell said, “through the interest on the page and what people have commented and tweeted and people who have bought up products is that there’s just a ton of interest among interfaith families in America. That this kind of brings everyone together in an authentic way. A way that you’re not splitting your time or feeling dual loyalties.”

With only a few days until Thanksgivukkah, the two sisters-in-law are hurrying to get everything done. But soon it will be over, and the question is, what’s next?

There’s a “really positive halo around Thanksgivukkah. Maybe some philanthropist will want to give us a grant to build a Thanksgivukkah movement of bringing people together with cultural mashups and the idea of gratitude,” said Gitell.

For her part, Dana said, “I would like to continue to be involved in the Jewish world and social media and connecting people and having fun with pop culture and Judaism. But I don’t know what can compare with this.”

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