Celebrating American Thanksgiving in Israel during the past 40 years
Reminiscing about Thanksgivings past and our first celebration as a young couple living in Kiryat Nordau, Netanya found us hosting Israeli cousins who had been exceedingly kind in welcoming us as new olim. They joked for many years after about ‘Tanksgiving’.
Working with NFTY and with Indiana University students at Hebrew University, I came to understand that this all-American holiday could be a sad time, prompting homesickness among those far from family in a place where the holiday isn’t celebrated.
During one of the last years of NFTY in Israel’s CAY program (College Academic Year in Israel), then based at Kibbutz Tzora, I was asked to join at their student-led Thanksgiving dinner. I was so warmly received and enjoyed the give and take among the group, who enthusiastically described their procurement of the necessary supplies, planning and prep for the feast. One student’s mom had sent pumpkin table decorations (subsequently willed to me which and enjoyed every year), while another shared her experience of ‘catching’ the turkey, which then had to be slaughtered. Tzora raised turkeys at that time, but this lovely student was herself a long-time vegetarian, doing her duty to her fellow students even if personally distasteful to her.
One year, I found myself with NFTY students enjoying a Thursday night Thanksgiving dinner, our Erev Shabbat hosts unexpectedly served a sumptuous Shabbat Thanksgiving repast with all of the trimmings, and the follow night we were hosting students and friends in our home for the same……three in a row!
By the way, one might note Israel’s high rate of per-capita consumption of turkey products. We enjoy turkey hot dogs, pastrami, salami, shwarma and shnitzel to name just a few, yet a whole roasted turkey remains relatively unknown.
Our bird is always ordered in advance from Achmed, the long-time, skilled, and very kind Arab butcher at our local supermarket, which caters to English-speaking Israelis, diplomats and ex-pats. I was sad when ordering the bird earlier this week to learn from his successors that Achmed had retired. I would have wanted to say goodbye to him and personally wish him good luck. I then told these young men that I had been ordering a turkey from Achmed every year since he had been working at this store.
One year a three-day Muslim holiday fell just before Thanksgiving. I came by early to pick up my bird and Achmed whispered and pointed under the counter, explaining that because of the holiday, the slaughterhouses preparing whole turkeys were closed and that he had only received 20 of the 70 birds ordered. I got mine and he safeguarded those set aside for the U. S. Consulate folks. Here I am, an ex-pat American Jew, now an Israeli dependent on the Muslim Arab butcher for her kosher turkey essential to hosting homesick American students for Thanksgiving dinner in Jerusalem. Achmed and friends always yielded their knives with peace and love, happy to supply what their American customers liked to order. We love this store for many reasons, one of which is the apparent respect and fair treatment of this store’s long-time Arab employees. We’ve become attached and depend on them when seeking out the finest vittles for our holiday tables.
Having ourselves come to Israel from another land and culture and growing to love Israeli culture and customs, it never occurred to us that our Israeli friends and family would find our Thanksgiving celebrations exotic or enticing. Yet, our daughter Ayala’s close friend Sivan had never seen a whole roasted turkey until her first Thanksgiving with us many years ago. It’s since become an annual tradition to photograph Sivan with the bird pre-carve.
We were privileged to bring my 85 year old mother to Israel in 2007 where she was well cared for in a local nursing home, departing peacefully from us at the age of 90. Granny reminded everyone that ‘she was just a plain old American girl’ and looked forward each year to Thanksgiving. Being wheelchair-bound, unable to access the steep stairs to our home, we invited her favorite caregivers to join her at a local hotel which annually hosts a sumptuous feast. When that was no longer possible, we brought her our home cooked goodies to the nursing home.
Since the day of our aliyah, I have held firm to the notion that we are privileged to live at a time in the history of our people when we have our own democratic state. With all of the challenges and blemishes, our Israeli Thanksgiving dinners remind us of the deep and lasting relationship between the United States and Israel, of Israelis and Americans and American Israelis, and that we have been chosen to be among those fortunate enough to have made Israel our home, the only true democracy in this part of the world and that as dual U.S./Israeli citizens we continue to find meaning in the story and celebration of Thanksgiving.
Terry Cohen Hendin, M.S.W., a member of Jerusalem’s Kehilat Kol Haneshama and the Israeli Reform Movement was Office Administrator and Director of Student Services for NFTY in Israel 1991-2007. A graduate of HUC-JIR School of Non-Profit Management, Terry holds an Honorary Doctorate from HUC and currently works as Israel Volunteer Coordinator for Skilled Volunteers for Israel. She made aliyah with her husband Ron in 1975, happily celebrating American Thanksgiving in Israel for the past 40 years. Their daughters, Keren and Ayala live in Jerusalem.
This article is dedicated to the generations of NFTY students and staff hosted at the Hendins’ Thanksgiving table and to Terry’s late mother, Audrey Cohen who was a long-time member of Temple Beth-El in Hammond, Indiana.