Thanksgiving in Tel Aviv: Living the Zionist dream

At least 50 lone soldiers and more than 100 young professionals gather at festive Nefesh B'Nefesh event.

Thanksgiving in Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Yonit Schiller/Nefesh B’Nefesh)
Thanksgiving in Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Yonit Schiller/Nefesh B’Nefesh)
At the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliya organization’s “Thanksgiving Dinner with a Middle Eastern Twist” on Thursday, the hosts did not shy away from the holiday’s North American culinary roots.
At least 50 lone soldiers (without close relatives in the country) and more than 100 young professionals gathered in Tel Aviv’s Leonardo Basel hotel for the autumnal engorgement.
I came alone, and within a minute I saw someone who had attended the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco with me; someone I had no idea was living in Israel.
“This is my first time here,” Hila, who graduated high school two years after me, told me. “I’ve been living in Israel for a little over a year.”
I asked Hila, who has been serving as the equivalent of a social worker in IDF for most of the time she has spent in Israel, what she was thankful for.
She said she was thankful that things were going so well for her here, and that her life was so good.
Call me traditional or clichéd, but I had a nagging impulse to ask folks what they were thankful for on this Thanksgiving.
Most people expressed gratitude for two things: their family, and the chance to live the Zionist dream in Israel.
This gathering was far from an opportunity for expatriates to get together and kvetch about the laborious process of integrating into a foreign culture. Rather, they seemed genuinely pleased to be spending an important cultural holiday – one that played a key role in our lives growing up – in Israel. No one told me, “Hey, I would rather be doing this back home.” I was the only one at my table not currently serving in the IDF.
The young woman sitting next to me, a sprightly South African celebrating Thanksgiving for her second time with Nefesh B’Nefesh, was in uniform.
“I came straight from the base, and I have no other clothes,” she said.
“Yes you do!” Hallel, an olah from Boston, chimed in.
Maybe she was just showing off her fatigues, but it seemed just as likely that she and the other soldiers in uniform just hadn’t had enough time to pick up civies on the way from their bases to the hotel.
One new paratrooper at our table was coming back from his enlistment day at the Tel Hashomer Induction Center, and hadn’t had time to sign up for the meal.
The staff let him in nonetheless.
“This is our sixth year doing this,” coordinator Rachel Kaufman, from Los Angeles, told me after a heated trivia battle that took place during our turkey dinner, adding that it has been sold out since the first time Nefesh B’Nefesh organized the event at Tel Aviv’s Beit Haikarim in 2005.
“This was a great opportunity for young professionals and lone soldiers to enjoy a traditional festive meal and express their thanks together with fellow olim from around the country for their good fortune,” Kaufman said.
“I’m thankful to be working for Nefesh B’Nefesh; to have the chance to bring together new olim,” Nefesh B’Nefesh’s PR coordinator Tani Kramer told me.
He also explained that Nefesh B’Nefesh staff had essentially taught the hotel kitchen staff four years ago how to prepare Thanksgiving foods.
“They were so interested,” Kramer said, adding it was a chance for Israelis to learn a bit about American culture. “We taught them how to make stuffing,” he said smiling.