Among the many things I knew but didn’t really internalize when I moved to Israel some many decades ago was having to cope with some life-changing developments: Learning to deal with the – shall we say – direct communication style of Israelis, the inevitability of being called up for military service, the lack of solid white tuna in cans, and maybe the most significant: the absence of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving in New England couldn’t be more bucolic – with Rockwell-like images, wonderful aromas, and good cheer amid the brisk weather, delectable traditional food, tons of football, and family togetherness.
Israel in late November is usually still shirt-sleeve balmy, the only football is the kind that Americans refer to as soccer, and for most expat Americans, family is 6,000 miles away. But at least we can still make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the dishes we loved growing up: yams, cranberry sauce, and of course, turkey and stuffing. Or so we thought.
Turns out that back in the pre-Internet and pre-cable TV ’80s, before Israelis developed a more worldly view of the surroundings beyond their borders, Thanksgiving was an unknown entity.
Not only could you not get canned cranberry sauce anywhere in the country, procuring a whole turkey was unheard of. This despite Israel being one of the biggest consumers of turkey in the world per capita … but it’s turkey breast, sliced turkey deli, and turkey bones for soup.
Unaware of this, my wife and I went to our local Jerusalem supermarket to buy a “hodu” – a turkey to feed to group of neighbors and friends we had invited to celebrate our first Thanksgiving as Israelis.
“What? You can’t get a whole turkey here, you’d have to order one and it would take weeks to come, if it comes at all,” said the butcher behind the meat counter. He instructed us to go to a particular butcher in the Mahane Yehuda shuk, down a certain alley, and there, perhaps, if we’re lucky, there’d be a turkey with our name on it.
The next day, riders on a particular Egged bus were probably straining their necks gawking at the sight of their fellow passenger – my wife – clutching a plastic bag containing a huge, freshly slaughtered turkey with its neck still attached and sticking way up in the air.
Obtaining the turkey was an accomplishment, but roasting it proved to be another challenge. Back then, Israeli ovens were considerably narrower than they are today in order to fit in the compact kitchens in the tiny apartments in cramped neighborhoods. After stuffing the bird, we had to literally stuff it in the oven, mutilating its legs and cooking it at a slant.
Against all odds, that first Israeli Thanksgiving proved successful, with other recent American immigrants enjoying the camaraderie and tastes of their old country. One new friend, a bemused British oleh, somehow jumbled the holiday with the Revolutionary War, and intermittently broke into choruses of “God Save the Queen.”
Despite those dubious beginnings, we’ve managed to continue marking that most American of holidays almost every year. The friends have rotated in and out, as they move away or drop out, but they’ve been replaced by family no longer 6,000 miles away – our own kids.
Our Israeli-born children have learned to love Thanksgiving, even though they don’t really know or care about its origins with the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. For them, it’s all about the exotic once-a-year dishes. Just like we only eat gefilte fish on Passover, pumpkin and pecan pie only shows up on our table on Thanksgiving.
Because Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday in Israel, it’s not necessarily celebrated on a particular day. Instead of rushing home from work to hurriedly prepare for the feast on Thursday when Americans celebrate, our Thanksgiving feast has evolved into a Friday night Shabbat extravaganza: Kiddush, challah, and sweet potatoes.
We’ve settled into a routine with one family of good friends where we swap hosting every other year and hunker down for a night of eating, and yes, of being thankful.
Most Israelis still aren’t aware of Thanksgiving’s existence. Other Western holidays, with much less universal and more pagan roots, have gained a foothold. Advertising displays in stores and nightclubs tout Halloween and Valentine’s Day themes, but you never see anyone promoting a Myles Standish or John Smith party with a gorgeous orange-brown foliage motif.
But there are signs that we’re not the only ones in Israel celebrating the holiday. It’s gotten easier to buy a whole turkey, although it still usually requires having to order it from the meat counter days in advance.
Across Israel, dinner tables can be heard thanking God with gusto: “Hodu L’Hashem.” But in certain pockets, we’re thanking him for the hodu.
David Brinn is a Jerusalem-based journalist.