I was an 18-year-old seminary student in Jerusalem when I first heard about Thanksgiving. In fact, until that year in seminary, I had never really been friends with an American before. I was completely unfamiliar with the American culture and holidays. Just a few months into our year of study, my American friends started talking about celebrating “Thanksgiving.” I couldn’t wrap my head round the idea that you could be extremely religious yet celebrate this national secular holiday.
Fast-forward five years – I was an Olah Chadashah living, studying, and working in Jerusalem, and I met and married an American. And not just any American. Our first Thanksgiving together as a married couple, I discovered how much this day met to my American husband who had been raised religious all his life. To him, Thanksgiving is about family. Thanksgiving is about fall. Thanksgiving is nostalgia. Thanksgiving is celebrating being an American. Thanksgiving is watching old Charlie Brown movies and tuning in to the Thanksgiving Macy’s Parade.
In our early married years, on Thanksgiving day, we would crowd around the small laptop screen and Skype my husband’s family in America as they were celebrating Thanksgiving together. And we were not. We were “alone” in Israel. It wasn’t easy for my husband. Correction – it ISN’T easy for my husband. Yet we found a way to celebrate Thanksgiving in the Holy Land. Thursday Thanksgiving dinner morphed into Friday night Thanksgiving dinner, a far more practical option for Israelis. Slowly but surely, hummus crept into our Friday night Thanksgiving menu – and it took on its own Israeli twist. As our family grew, we would allow our children to stay home from school on Thanksgiving to make the day “special” for them, and more often than not, my husband would take the day off work. Our expat friends became our family and we took on our own “minhagim” (customs). Our really good friends from up north would come for Shabbat and we would celebrate together.
It was our way of making Thanksgiving work in Israel.
It wasn’t until we moved to America for three years that I myself saw and appreciated the deeper meaning behind Thanksgiving. As Jews, we like to quip, “Every Friday night is Thanksgiving when you’re Jewish.” “You don’t need Thanksgiving to be grateful.” But I saw a different more holistic meaning to the day when my then 10-year-old came home from her private Jewish day school with a Thanksgiving project that she had worked on in JEWISH studies class, focusing on Hakarot Hatov – appreciation. I started to appreciate Thanksgiving on a different level.
True, you don’t NEED a specific day to be grateful. But we Jews know better than anyone the importance and power of having certain days prescribed in our calendar to help us center ourselves and remind ourselves of what is important in life. Shabbat reminds us of the value of family, community, prayer, and the act of stopping, breathing, and relinquishing control. Sukkot reminds us of the fragility of life our vulnerability.
And as Jews living in Israel, Thanksgiving takes on even more meaning. Think about it. Despite our long history of persecution as a people, American Jews have lived freely over the years to celebrate and enjoy Thanksgiving in the US, like any other Americans. Now, living in Israel, we get to live in Israel where we can be at one with our Zionism, Judaism, and embrace the culture of our country of origin. Our local Israeli supermarkets have turkeys ready for Americans to order. A quick hop skip and jump takes us to a store with American products where we can buy cranberry sauce and all the fixings. Thanksgiving dinners are held all over the country. And even though my husband is not actually in the US, he can celebrate the day in Israel with fellow Americans and friends of other nationalities who are just in it for the ride.
In a BDS-riddled world, where every day we are faced with new and fresh examples of in-your-face anti-Semitism, it is a beautiful thing to stop and reflect on how damn lucky we are that in 2018 we are a free people living in our homeland in the Middle East eating turkey and stuffing on a Thursday (or Friday) night in the third week of November. The best part? My American husband won’t allow my British hands to contaminate the food – so I have zero involvement with the cooking. Thank you, Josh. Thank you, America.