I grew up in a secular Jewish family in New York City that didn’t observe any of the religious holidays, yet Thanksgiving remained sacred.
The day began with seeing the Thanksgiving Day parade, where the sight of an over-sized Snoopy float bobbing down Central Park West seemed thrilling and one couldn’t help gyrating to the high school marching bands, hailing from all over the country, with baton-twirling cheerleaders in sparkly outfits.
Although the rest of the year our family dinners relied upon quick and easy preparation — my parents were both busy professionals — on Thanksgiving, time was put into cooking. I helped my mother make the traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, and cranberry sauce. A pumpkin pie was even purchased for dessert, something usually eschewed by my weight-conscious parents.
When we sat down at our dining room table, I had the warm feeling of being an insider within my country, a feeling that eluded me during Christmas and Passover. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.
After my husband and I made aliyah, we gave Thanksgiving a pass. We were in that phase of throwing ourselves into the life here, delighting in not being under pressure to celebrate such American holidays as New Year’s Eve (my least favorite holiday). There were plenty of Jewish holidays to celebrate with our small children, so who wanted another one, especially one that had nothing to do with Judaism?
During several years of a sabbatical in the US, I introduced my then-young children to Thanksgiving. I admit that the parade had lost some of its luster. It dragged on interminably and the floats seemed less impressive in this digital age.
But there was still the meal shared with family and the sense of being part of an inclusive holiday. Some 85 percent of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving holiday, according to Wikipedia, which is a phenomenal number for a heterogeneous nation.
Returning to Israel after our sabbatical, I was seized with an idea to celebrate Thanksgiving. I thought my biggest obstacle would be finding a whole turkey. I had never seen one here and without that turkey, the celebration here would be, at least for me, a very pale imitation of what I’d left behind.
A few weeks before the holiday, I shyly and hesitantly approached the butcher in the Mega Supermarket.
“Do you, um, have turkey, a whole turkey?”
“Yes, yes, for Thanksgiving,” said the butcher in a thick Russian accent. “No problem, I order you one.”
Apparently, I wasn’t the only American in town who wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving.
It also wasn’t hard to find stores selling canned pumpkin and cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes are already a staple here.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I picked up the pre-ordered turkey. An Israeli turkey is a lot smaller than its America counterpart, usually weighing no more than four kilos, which means they look a bit less dramatic, but never mind.
It was my first time making a turkey solo. I read extensively about the merits of marinating as compared to brining. I agonized over which stuffing to make and decided to keep it simple. After filling up the cavity with stuffing, I even sewed up the opening with needle and thread, which I had seen my grandmother do when I was a child.
I basted the turkey continuously and after several hours measured it with a meat thermometer, lamenting the absence of that red button affixed to US turkeys which pops up when the turkey is ready. Oh well, I thought, these are the concessions one makes in deciding to make aliyah.
The turkey was sensational. Better than that, it tasted like its American counterpart.
And so, a tradition was born. The next year, I did little to prep the turkey and it was also great, making me realize that all this turkey cooking needs to be demystified. My humble advice? Treat your whole turkey like a roast chicken and it will turn out fine.
At each of my Thanksgiving parties, which have expanded, there are always a handful of Israeli natives enjoying their first such meal. They watch patiently to be shown how it’s done – how you must pile a forkful of meat with stuffing, a little gravy, and dollop of cranberry sauce to create that perfect combination of gamey, savory, and sweet.
Now, once a year, my house smells of my childhood and my homeland. Celebrating it abroad gives it an especially delicious taste.