Even though Shabbat is practically around the corner, today my Israeli kitchen smells of sage and cinnamon, ginger and thyme instead of the usual challah, cumin and turmeric, and it feels like America is coming over for a visit.
Ever since I could say “pilgrim,” Thanksgiving has held a special place in my heart. The aroma of Thanksgiving brines me in the Southern California Turkey Days of my past, when my late Bubbie’s potato kugel and simple roast turkey would vie for the spotlight at the buffet each year, the ruby sweet-tart of her homemade cranberry sauce bursting from the almost-holy crystal bowl shaped like a basket.
I remember the year my parents and both sets of grandparents took Thanksgiving on the road to Palm Springs and we managed to taste the yellow-orange of autumn amid palm trees and t-shirts because Bubbie shlepped her turkey to our hotel, topped off by my mother’s from-scratch boysenberry pie, and then in true Thanksgiving-is-not-a-chag form we all went to go see Dances with Wolves the local multiplex.
And then there were all those American Thanksgivings I cherished after I was married and had kids, filled with dear family and friends and turkey cupcakes and poetry recitations in kindergarten classrooms and long drives in holiday traffic, my homemade pies in tow (okay, fine, I admit I used frozen crust) to be with family.
This morning, it dawned on me that it’s my sixth Thanksgiving in Israel. Five years ago, my husband and I were here on our pilot trip which I had dubbed our “ThanksgivukkAliyah ” when our house- and school-hunting adventure in the Holy Land intersected with both Thanksgiving and Chanukah, an amusing mashup of the culture we were about to nail-bitingly leave behind and the one we were about to embrace, still unaware of all the challenges, adventures and experiences that would await us and ultimately change us.
That first pre-aliyah Thanksgiving, my cousins hosted us and went out of their way to make sure we would feel at home, to ease us into Israeli life and show us that we would not be alone here and that we would still have family to gorge and belly-laugh and belch with. Tonight, I get to host them for Thanksgiving in our Israeli home, a fitting “thank you” to them for smoothing our way.
Because four years and change after we made aliyah, we are still “thanksgiving-ing,” albeit without many of the old badges of Thanksgiving like the no-school day and football games and pumpkin — spice-everything and fake leaves and horns aplenty around every corner. Many of our olim friends have already morphed their Thanksgivings into more shwarma-friendly versions with Thanksgiving themed Shabbat dinners and a mix of Israeli dishes, and still others have abandoned Thanksgiving altogether, save for the Black Friday sales Israeli malls have awkwardly adopted with gusto.
I surprised myself when I realized I was just about ready to make the switch to Friday Thanksgiving too, wary of cooking a big dinner Thursday night and having to prepare for Shabbat right afterwards, but for one of my kids, the sacredness of Thanksgiving Thursday still tugs strongly so we decided to stay the course and have our feast on the traditional American day once again.
But this year, even with my traditional American menu, my Thanksgiving has had an Israeli twist. Due to bureaucracy and timing, today was the day I took my oldest daughter for her first pre-army physical. I was a little frazzled to have to squeeze it in today of all days, when in a few hours’ time over 20 people will be descending upon my house for their turkey and cranberry fix, and a long wait at our local Israeli kupat cholim could have put a damper on my cooking plans like a burst Macy’s balloon.
Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long. The Israeli doctor, who had met only me before and not my daughter and was all too familiar with my choppy hybrid of Hebrew and English, asked my daughter a little warily if she spoke Hebrew. Much to the doctor’s surprise and delight, my tall and poised 16-year-old began to converse and kibbitz with her in fluent Hebrew, accent and all, impressing the doctor and causing me to choke up as I realized it was the most Hebrew I had ever heard my daughter speak. When we came to Israel four years ago, she could barely put a short sentence together and now she was chatting like a sabra, a glimpse of the chayalet she will soon become.
I confided in the doctor that when we first decided to make aliyah, I would stay up nights, head on my comfortable American pillow, worrying about sending my sons to the army; it had not even occurred to me then that any of my religious daughters would serve too. And here we were on Thanksgiving, with my daughter’s tzav rishon looming, her first army appearance another course in the feast that is our new Israeli life.
So on this most American of days, I find myself feeling mamash Israeli, and when I eat my turkey and cranberry sauce tonight, followed by a slice of lotus cookie pumpkin pie, I will whisper a todah along with my thanks for life’s bounty.