Muslims, Jews and turkeys

How I found a reason to give thanks, and how it doesn't matter at all that it was in a tiny Jaffa apartment.

turkey 88 (photo credit: )
turkey 88
(photo credit: )
I was walking down Rothschild Blvd. on what was Thanksgiving Day in America, but what in Israel was an ordinary Thursday. My phone buzzed. "Unknown," the caller ID said. I hesitated, then answered. It was X. The mythological X, that is. "Happy Turkey Day!" he said. I sat down on a bench and started crying. "Oh, what's wrong, honey? Are you homesick?" he asked me. As I began to choke out an answer, a passing Israeli stopped, opened his backpack, produced a tissue and offered it to me. "Toda," I said through my tears. He nodded once, soberly, and walked on. "What?" X said. "I was saying thanks to a guy who just handed me a tissue." "Oh," he said. And there was that divide between us again, one of the things that had driven us apart - only this time it came in the form of language. A word of Hebrew and X was momentarily out of the loop - as out of the loop as I'd felt around his Puerto Rican Catholic family, even though X himself was a lapsed Catholic and my Spanish was better than his. Sure, I'd had a Christmas stocking at his parents' house, sure they'd bought a menora and put it on the mantle every year, but there was always a barrier. But we did have a holiday in common - Thanksgiving. It was always my favorite American holiday - it was one of the few that had nothing to do with Jesus and, to my family, it had always been about being together. We ate, we drank, we argued. That was Thanksgiving. I told X all this in one long, jumbled sentence. I blew my nose into the tissue the Israeli had handed me. "You can always come home," X offered. But hadn't I done that when I moved here? And if Israel is my home, why was I feeling so miserable that day, my second consecutive Thanksgiving here? It was almost Shabbat. Boaz (my current boyfriend) and I were in a taxi headed to Jaffa to celebrate Thanksgiving, albeit a day late, at the home of an Israeli-American friend who shares it with her Arab-Israeli boyfriend. "So what exactly are we celebrating?" Boaz asked me. "Thanksgiving." "And what are we supposed to be thanking God for?" "We're not thanking God. It's a totally secular holiday." Boaz looked confused. "But, wait. It's a Christian holiday, right?" "No. It's secular." "But it's a holiday. As in a holy day," Boaz insisted. My Jewishness had been a barrier between X and me; now my Americanness was proving to be a barrier, however small and infrequent, between Boaz and me. "It's not a holy day. It's a holiday," I said. "Look. It's just about being together. You eat a lot, you drink a lot. You sit around, you argue." I searched for an analogy that he would understand. "It's sort of like a really big Shabbat dinner," I said. When we arrived, we found our Muslim-Arab host sitting on the couch next to a bearded Israeli with a kippa. In this tiny living room/kitchen/dining room - the walls painted a pale, crisp yellow - there was a fairly large group of Arab-Israelis, Israelis, Israeli-Americans and American Jews, all of whom had gathered together to celebrate Thanksgiving. There weren't enough seats at the table, but there was plenty of food. And with even less fanfare than some in Israel have on Shabbat, we dug in. I didn't care that the cumin-spiced turkey was in pieces rather than whole. I didn't care that the cucumber-dill-yogurt salad on my plate ran into the green bean casserole. I didn't care that I was eating on a plastic plate and that the tongs of my plastic fork snapped again and again (I ended up going through three forks. Boaz eventually gave up on the plastic forks and took a metal one from the dishdrainer). I didn't care that it was a day late. I looked around at Boaz and the assorted collection of friends, acquaintances and strangers. That lump I'd been feeling in my throat - that ache in my chest, homesickness - dissolved. Back at my apartment in the city center that night, Boaz and I did a replay of the evening. Not only was it the first time he'd celebrated Thanksgiving, it was also the first time he'd spent an extended amount of time with Arabs. He remarked how good the food was... and he remarked on how nice everyone was. As I listened to Boaz talk excitedly about how interesting he thought one of our Arab companions was, it hit me then that the Thanksgiving we'd participated in was closer to the idea of Thanksgiving than any Turkey Day dinner I'd ever been to in America.