Thanksgiving is a beautiful holiday that fits right in with Jewish values: blessing God communally for getting you through hard times.
This year for the first and only time I can remember, Thanksgiving comes out on the first day of Hanukka.
When we got off the plane in 1971, wanting so much to be Israelis, we never gave much thought to hanging on to the American in us. But just by chance, my husband’s birthday and our anniversary were just a day apart in the last week in November. So, from the very beginning, we decided to give thanks for both those occasions by enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner.
At first, it was only the two of us, so we looked around for a hotel that would be roasting turkeys for tourists. We found these amazing buffets at eye-watering prices at the fancier of Jerusalem’s hotels.
For years we bought in, two lonely immigrants hanging out with the rich Americans, pretending they could afford it.
Then we had some kids, and my in-laws made aliya from Brooklyn. The reservation went from two to eight, and Dad, God rest his soul, who really could afford it, insisted on paying. We’d dress up giddily, dress the kids in outlandish holiday outfits fresh out of Bubbe’s just-off-the-plane suitcase, and spend an evening filled with too much food and just the right amount of laughter, feeling for a single night like Americans again. The biggest problem was the concept of “getting your money’s worth” at such a buffet, a task that inevitably left us bloated for a week.
By the time we had four kids, it was just too much bother. Besides, the hotels’ mostly Arab chefs didn’t always get it right. There was, for example, the egregious, almost sacrilegious, instance of the chef at the hotel that shall forever remain nameless, who served sticky blueberry goo instead of cranberry sauce.
I will never forget it.
Nudged by this inauthenticity, we finally made the transition from hotel to home. I went around looking for somewhere to buy a whole turkey, instead of the cut-up parts Israelis call “red meat” or shishlik, and turkey breast. Luckily my butcher said he could order one for me specially.
While I don’t remember exactly what year that was, I can tell you this, it started when my butcher, Yossi, and his brother Tsvika were both young kids working for their father – and now they are going gray and their dad is retired. But their phone number hasn’t changed, and they remember me when I call in November, promising to save me a turkey that will be big enough for all but not too big to fit into my Israeli-sized oven. Twelve to 14 pounds is about the most I can handle. They have even taken to stocking American cranberry sauce! And I promise you, they’ve added many other American customers.
While the traditional bread stuffing gave way a few years ago to an amazing oatmeal, wheat-germ, matza-meal combination I learned from a doctor in North Carolina whose home I stayed at during a November book tour, the rest of the menu hasn’t moved much.
It’s pretty much roast turkey, stuffing, corn muffins, candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, pumpkin soup (I tried fish chowder one year, but was outvoted) and some gratuitous green vegetable which surprisingly everyone eats. I tried, and am still trying, to interest my family in chestnuts, but they just don’t get it. On the other hand, the apple, pecan and lemon meringue pies have become stuff of legend. My single attempt to cut back on fat by offering baked apples sans crust was met with ridicule, as I tried to convince them that “nobody really likes the crust.” Au contraire.
When our kids grew up and got married, I got a daughter-in-law and a grandchild whose birthdays came out on that same festive week, giving us more reasons to celebrate. And as the family grew, we put in more table leaves, bought more portable chairs, and set up a separate area for the kids in the living room and around the kitchen table. I guess the next step will be a buffet, but I can’t get my head around that yet. Thanksgiving is a time to sit around a table, Norman Rockwell-style.
Every November I try, mostly in vain, to find some kind of Thanksgiving-appropriate tableware. One year I actually found turkey-themed napkins in the shuk (three packages for NIS 10), and another I found crepe-paper turkeys which I carefully fold up and use from year to year, even if they are a little worn and Scotch-taped.
My daughters both married Sephardim and so my grandchildren are versed in matboucha, moufleta, humous, and lots and lots of Middle Eastern spices that would have astounded my own American-born Mom (a boiled chicken aficionado who considered salt the only spice worth using). I admit to a certain inferiority complex in cooking for my grandchildren. I can offer them no kebabs. No highly spiced fish smothered in red peppers and onions. No Tunisian couscous.
I tried feeding them baked macaroni and cheese but they couldn’t figure it out, and even my own kids weren’t mad about it. But after years of enticing them into my home on Thanksgiving and introducing them to plates overfilled with American comfort foods, I have made my own sly inroads in the grandmother sweepstakes.
When you can get your teenage grandchildren to actually tear themselves away from the many more enticing pleasures young Israelis now have at their disposal in the cyber age, to visit Grandma and Grandpa, you know you’ve done something right. As my granddaughter said just the other day: “Thanksgiving [well, she actually said ‘Hag Hahodaya’] has the best food.”
While they all received American citizenship years ago, they will never really be Americans. But at least on Thanksgiving, they can bask in the one custom that we didn’t leave behind.
And that’s okay. Their other grandmother has her Mimouna, and I expect if I knew more, I could point to the special festivals of Jews from Ethiopia, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Russia, etc. – provenances that other Jews are keeping alive in the Israeli melting pot. For the most part, I think melting is good. I spoke to the head of the genetic testing unit at Hadassah University Medical Center years ago, and she told me that with all the intermarriage between different Jewish nationalities, genetic diseases among Israeli Jews were disappearing rapidly.
I’m sure our customs will soon follow. One day, it will be hard to find natives celebrating Thanksgiving in Israel.
I personally think that’s a shame. It’s a beautiful holiday that fits right in with Jewish values: blessing God communally for getting you through hard times, helping your neighbors, expressing gratitude for abundance.
This is our forty-third Thanksgiving dinner in Israel. Seeing my sons and daughters, their spouses and their sons and daughters all gathered together around the relatively modest Middle Eastern bird, bathed in the light of the menorah, I feel what I have always felt since I stepped off the plane from my birthplace to come to this country which gave birth to me anew, but allowed me to keep something of my past: a big, heartfelt thanks for all my blessings of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post on 29 November 2013.