Erica Brown

Thanksgiving: This year in Jerusalem

Anxiety about Israel at war, the hostages, antisemitism (the list goes on) makes it hard to give thanks, but it's exactly the right thing to do
Posters of the hostages abducted to Gaza by Hamas on October 7, 2023, line the walkway to the arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion airport. (via Facebook)
Posters of the hostages abducted to Gaza by Hamas on October 7, 2023, line the walkway to the arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion airport. (via Facebook)

Tomorrow, Thursday, if I were in America, I would set the table early, organize a lavish mid-afternoon meal, and put the menu on the refrigerator. I would have scoured recipes in newspaper food sections intended for anxious would-be cooks and put the ingredients together on the counter. The day would be blessedly slow and calm. I’d have time to pause and consider the matanot ketanot, the small gifts, of the day.

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. The streets are quiet. The stores are closed (most of them), and family and friends gather together to celebrate. Everyone can drive over, and the food doesn’t dry out because you serve it right after you make it. Old and new immigrants usually love Thanksgiving, as my grandparents did. They loved America and were grateful for their new lives and new freedoms. It’s a festive time to recount blessings. In his book, Celebrating Life, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “A blessing is an expression of the miracle of simple things.”

But I am in Israel this year. It’s going to be different.

It was different even before I got on the plane. When the El Al security representative asked us if we packed our bags ourselves, he also asked why we were coming.

“For a visit.”

“A visit during a war?”

“A visit because of the war.”

He looked up from our passports with grateful eyes and thanked us. The pilot also thanked us for coming and reminded us that El Al, the only airline flying to Israel right now, continues to serve Israel in peace and in crisis. The airport was empty of the usual noises of families and friends reunited. There were no children holding balloons or boyfriends clutching cheap flowers and handmade signs.

The war is inescapable and everywhere. The automated passport reader that takes your photo first displayed a picture of one hostage, as if joining us together in a common fate. Ben Gurion’s long marble corridor is now flanked on both sides with posters of hostages. Walking by them quickly felt disrespectful. I took my time, pausing in front of babies and children under 10. Forty-six (now 47) days in captivity. Every one of those lives will be shattered in permanent ways. I touched my dog-tag that says, “Bring Them Home Now,” as a talisman and a prayer.

On Highway #1 to Jerusalem, there are signs promoting our victory, but the news makes it clear we’re not there yet. For the 10 hours on the plane, we had been cut off from our usual doom-scrolling, but when we landed, we learned that two soldiers had been killed. We heard reports of a possible hostage deal to free 50 women and children that may take place on Thanksgiving. Together, may we say on this Thanksgiving the words of our morning prayer: “Blessed are You Lord, our God, King of the Universe who frees the imprisoned.”

Our anxiety about Israel at war is palpable, which makes it harder to give thanks. When Americans sit at tables to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, our soldiers will still be deep in Gaza. Family and friends will run into protective shelters when sirens cry out, and we will pray that today is the day that all the hostages see their loved ones. I find myself perpetually on the precipice of a deep black hole of sorrow. I weep randomly. It all seems absurd until I realize that this is exactly the right time to be thankful.

This Thanksgiving, let us offer a prayer of gratitude.

  • We are grateful that we have an army to protect us. We didn’t for most of Jewish history.
  • We are grateful that soldiers, many of them away for weeks without breaks, wake up each day and fight for democracy and Israel’s right to exist.
  • We are grateful for those hostages who have been released (and rescued) and pray for them all to come home.
  • We are grateful that reservists everywhere came home to serve in the IDF.
  • We are grateful for the strength of those holding down the home front while their family members are at war.
  • We are grateful that Israel is more unified than ever.
  • We are grateful that Israelis put down signs of protest and responded to ferocious atrocity with unconditional altruism.
  • We are grateful for the everyday miracles of volunteers who are packing food, doing laundry, sorting donations, picking fruit, babysitting, driving, and attending the funerals of those they don’t know.
  • We are grateful that Israel has a remarkable network and infrastructure of communal organizations in place that were ready and able to mobilize resources and respond quickly.
  • We are grateful that Jews across the globe are expressing solidarity with Israel when it matters most.
  • We are grateful that the rise in antisemitism has woken us up to the reality that we must show up for each other, now more than ever.
  • We are grateful that college students facing antisemitism on campus are finding the voice to fight back. This war will turn them into the future leaders of our people.
  • We are grateful that we have the technology to reach across the ocean in real time and support those who serve and those we love.
  • We are grateful that Israel continues to provide a sheltering embrace for refugees and immigrants who cannot live safely and securely elsewhere.
  • We are grateful that the American government and our allies the world over have supported our fight.
  • We are grateful for the many, many new babies born during this war whom we hope will one day enjoy peace.
  • We are grateful for the friends who carry us across the pain.
  • We are grateful for the love and support of strangers.
  • We are grateful that Israel continues to be the central and enduring project of the Jewish people.

Spiritual writer Melodie Beattie, once wrote, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.” We can be sad, despondent, and struggling and still offer thanks for life’s fullness. This year, Thanksgiving is more complicated. But sometimes squeezing gratitude out of despair makes it more rich, more textured, and more deeply felt.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).
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