The Human Spirit: Expat Thanksgiving

"For American Israelis, Thanksgiving has been growing in popularity, so much so that owners of the supermarket in the German Colony post a handwritten sign offering whole turkeys."

By
December 3, 2015 14:08
Thanksgiving Israel

American lone soldiers in the IDF celebrate Thanksgiving in Israel. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Moroccan Jews carried the post-Passover Mimouna holiday with them to Israel. Ethiopian Jews have added Sigd to our national celebrations. For American Israelis, Thanksgiving has been growing in popularity, so much so that owners of the supermarket in the German Colony post a handwritten sign offering whole turkeys for their American customers. The corner store, where not long ago the sole imported product was Kellogg’s cornflakes, carries precooked chestnuts and pumpkin puree for the pie.

Why the popularity? The food, of course, has appeal, but for those of us growing up Jewish in America, Thanksgiving was the day that we finally fit in.

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Thanksgiving was for everyone. Based on the biblical thanksgiving meal, the devout Pilgrims who fled England in 1620 seeking religious freedom made a Succot-like harvest feast together with the helpful Native Americans who taught them about poultry and corn.

Oddly, England, the country the Pilgrims left behind, is one of the places outside the United States where Thanksgiving has taken off. According to a 2014 survey by supermarket Waitrose, one in six Brits celebrates Thanksgiving.

Likewise, poke around the Web and you’ll find posts of expats struggling for ingredients and big-enough ovens in Beijing, Prague and Geneva. My American cousins who now live in Paris posted pictures of the French version of Thanksgiving dessert.

Not feeling bound by the orthodoxy on this matter, most American-Israelis I know have tweaked America’s traditional fourth Thursday of November to mark the day on the more convenient fourth Shabbat in November.

Hence, table talk is a mix of Torah and Thanksgiving, an easy blend, like our host’s dazzling halla of spelt and sweet potato. Says a guest, a rabbi and educator, the only Temple sacrifice to exist in a post Messianic-world will be the thanksgiving sacrifice, korban toda. This oversized sacrifice doesn’t have the time restrictions of others, and is so large that it requires inviting company to eat.

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I’m particularly glad for Thanksgiving this year. I can’t remember a time when relationships have been quite so strained between the lands I love, Israel and the United States. The Iran deal, the blaming of Israel for the terrorism we suffer, the draconian conditions of Jonathan Pollard’s release underline the chafing between the double identities.

Thanksgiving is the ultimate reminder of how much of a heritage we share, and how grateful we Jews need to be for America, both for the possibilities of freedom it represents and for the role it has played in our family stories.

LIKE THE Pilgrims, my grandparents left lands of religious oppression. They went from small towns in what was then Poland to a small town in New England.

In Colchester, Connecticut, Thanksgiving was a huge holiday. How American we had become! We sat around a cherry wood table and a maple dry sink from colonial times. The dining room picture window looked out on a town incorporated in 1698 on land purchased from Uncas, a Mohegan chief who sided with the colonials against the Pequots, and past the town onto open fields.

By the early 20th century, the Hirsch Foundation of New York had discovered that Colchester was an excellent place for the settlement of European Jewish immigrants. We belonged to the town’s two synagogues, around the corner from each other, split over some long-forgotten fight about dues. The Hirsch Foundation placed Jews on poultry farms. No shortage of Thanksgiving turkeys.

The Jews eagerly played leading roles in civic affairs. Hence, my father was at the same time a member of the school board, head of the recreation committee, a justice of the peace and an assistant judge. He also inherited the leadership of the local free loan society from his father and had to conduct meetings in Yiddish.

Only at Hebrew school, convening in a community building called Zion Hall, did we dare ask that toxic question: If, God forbid, Israel and America were at war against each other, whom would you side with? The rabbi always waved it away. Such a scene could never happen.

This question was never discussed at recess in public school, where we daily pledged allegiance to the flag, and sang the national anthem at assemblies. I got teary (verklempt, as the president of the United States said recently) when we sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at the part about rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, and our flag being still there.

AT THE Jerusalem Thanksgiving dinner, all of us have seen the rockets’ glare and heard bombs bursting in air. For each of us there has been a personal tipping point where we have left America to cast our lots with the building of the Jewish state. Half those dining are Sabra offspring – one a deputy company commander with the familiar IDF buzz haircut and tired eyes.

Our hosts, Lisa and Robert Bergman, ask us American immigrants to share a piece of Americana with each other and the youngsters. But it is their own family story that is most memorable.

Robert Bergman, a physician, holds up a black-and-white photo of his great-grandfather Joe Boderman of Allentown, Pennsylvania, posing with some 180 others – men and women and a few dozen children.

Arriving by steerage from Russia as a 14-year-old with nothing more than the pack he could carry, Boderman went to high school and grew up to become a men’s clothing manufacturer.

“Everything he owned was in his sack,” Dr. Bergman stresses to the youngsters. “That’s America. You can come with no financial resources but a lot of determination. That’s the story for every single one of us whose ancestors immigrated. They started with nothing more than that sack over their shoulders.”

And who are the men, women and children in the photo? No, not relatives.

The Great Depression hit America for a decade in 1929. At the nadir, 13 million Americans were unemployed and homes were foreclosed across the country.

The American dream seemed like a great experiment that had come to a crashing end.

Strength and optimism, some historians postulate, came from immigrants who had experienced greater deprivation in their native lands.

The folks in the photo were Boderman’s employees. Despite the Herculean challenges, he kept the Allentown factory going throughout the Depression, providing a livelihood for all of those families in the country that had gifted him with the freedom he so appreciated.

Giving back, that’s part of the American ethic, too.

We could use a national day of thanksgiving in Israel, too. 

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.

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