Much as I’m sure many other American Jews are, I’m already sick of all the hubbub around the convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah this year, two holidays with rich culinary traditions that will likely be mashed up on many a table next week, with turkey latkes and cranberry donuts or other offenses to the human palate.
In fact though, I think I’m more sick of the hype than most, precisely because for me, Thanksgivukkah (to use the over worn portmanteau) doesn’t come once every 70,000 years, but every year. Growing up, a Thanksgiving meal in the Davidovich household was more likely to have latkes (more on those later) than cranberry anything, stuffed cabbage than turkey or kugel than squash. Or to be a hipster about it, we were mashing up Judaism and Thanksgiving before it was cool.
My story, I imagine, is not totally unique, though it is quickly disappearing from the American-Jewish cultural tableau. The son of two sets of second generation survivors (one of whom only came to the US in the 1970s) and two sets of grandparents whose English never quite matched up to their Yiddish, my American upbringing was constantly colored with the ghosts of Eastern Europe’s past.
The tensions between old world and new for immigrants to America is not a modern story, or a unique one. Among most American Jews that battle was a relic by the 1980s, yet my Thanksgiving memories are proof that for my family, and others as well, I imagine, the pull and push is still being played out.
In many ways I’ve often felt my American experience in the 1990s and 2000s was closer to that of the postwar Krichinskys (cum Kirks and Kayes) of Barry Levenson’s Avalon (which, yes, had a famous scene with a traditional Thanksgiving) than even the Jewiest scenes in Seinfeld or anything Woody Allen directed. I’m probably not the only kid to have slept on a bedspread from an “An American Tail,” but I probably identified more with Fievel Mouskewitz than is normal for somebody born and raised in the Midwest.
Nowhere was this lingering of Eastern Europe more present than at the holiday table, or even the weekly Shabbat meal, where foods and conversations in Yiddish and Ruthenian (with yes, a bit of English too) often made it seem as if my family had never quite left the shtetls of Transcarpathia and Poland.
It was no different come the fourth Thursday in November, which was seen as yet another Jewish holiday, only with less challah and more football (you can’t get very far in Cleveland without a love of football). The foods were traditional, but traditional Jewish (or traditional Hungarian to be precise). Brisket, potato kugel, meatballs, stuffed cabbage and yes, even some turkey breast, with nary a cranberry, squash or sweet potato to be seen.
Nobody talked about being thankful, or pilgrims and Indians. If there were any turkey decorations (a few hand outlines scribbled on papers) they were there ironically, or as a half-assed nod to the land of the free brought home from kindergarten.
Thanksgiving, then, was just another instance of “they tried to kill us, we survived, lets eat,” only without the genocide part. Why were we there? Because that’s what you do on Thanksgiving. You get together with family, you watch football, you eat, you drink, and you get out of dodge.
I remember the first time I attended another family’s Thanksgiving, a “real Thanksgiving,” at my brother-in-law’s relatives’ home in Pennsylvania. I had lived in the US my whole life, seen Thanksgiving tropes played out a million times on TV and movies, yet was still shocked when we were all brought to sit down at one table, and a several course meal , including squash soup, three kinds of turkey, and all the other typical thanksgiving food, was brought out. Wine was poured, birds were carved and nobody left the table until after dessert.
Whereas in my parents home, vodka and Crown Royal flowed freely, here I didn’t even feel comfortable bringing my Miller Lite to the table. Whereas in my parent’s home you eat a slice of pumpkin pie (the one nod to the holiday that somehow crept in) and leave before the shouting starts, here everybody stuck around and played board games or ping pong after dinner.
I never went back there.
And now I must address the latkes, which many will discover this year is as good an accompaniment to a Thanksgiving meal as any squash soup or whatever. There were always latkes, not, mind you a nod to the season, but because that’s just what we ate year round. Maybe that’s how people dined in Transcarpathia, maybe my bubbies just really liked slaving over them, but going to their homes, you could expect latkes if there was snow on the ground, if you were spinning a driedle, or if you were coming over from the pool.
Bubby Chana passed away earlier this month and Thanksgiving, while somewhat muted, will likely be a celebration of her life in the Davidovich household. A celebration of someone who got along in America but always clung fiercely to her roots. Someone who made stuffed cabbage and latkes for Thanksgiving, because that’s what you eat when family gets together, not turkey and cranberry.
She won’t be at the table this year, but I’m sure latkes, slaved over by my sister or some other unlucky soul, will be served. They would have been there no matter what, Thanksgivukkah or not.