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
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.
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 inlaws
made aliya from Brooklyn. The reservation went from two to six, 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.
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.
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
While I don’t remember exactly what year that was, I can tell
you this, it started when my butcher, Yossi, and his brother were both young
kids working for their father – and now Yossi is going gray and his dad is
retired. But his phone number hasn’t changed, and he remembers 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. He has even taken to stocking American cranberry sauce! And I
promise you, he has added many other American customers.
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
I’m sure our customs will soon follow.
day, it will be hard to find natives celebrating Thanksgiving in
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
This is our 43rd 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.