Thanksgivukkah. It’s been called a once-in-lifetime celebration. The unique convergence of the Jewish Festival of Lights and the American Festival of Thanks and Turkey Gorging. It’s been more than 100 years since Thanksgiving and Hanukkah last coincided, a rarity that is being celebrated by Jews in America with special treats like sweet-potato latkes and challah stuffing. At least one New York bakery is selling turkey and cranberry doughnuts.
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In Israel, a holiday that tends to go ignored cannot be this year. From Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, the average Israeli seems to know that yesterday was Thanksgiving, Hag Hahodayah in Hebrew. For some American Jews in Israel, that was comforting. But for others, the acute awareness of Thanksgiving in Israel accentuates the feeling of being far from home, away from friends, family and football.
That is especially true for American “lone soldiers,” who left family and friends behind to serve in the Israeli military. According to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, some 950 new lone soldiers join the IDF each year.
Across Israel, special Thanksgivukkah events were held to help lone soldiers feel more at home and to remind them that their service does not go unappreciated.
One of those events took place in Tel Aviv, where nearly 600 lone soldiers were treated to a Thanksgivukkah party complete with 15 turkeys, 30 chickens and beer from Israeli microbreweries. The “ChanukahGiving” celebration was hosted by the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, an American lone soldier who was killed during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Jared White, a Florida native who cofounded the organization, says he knows how important such events are, because he served in the same war himself, also as a soldier with no family in Israel.
“I remember my folks calling me on Thanksgiving, when I was on a patrol on the northern Lebanon border,” White recalls. “My whole family was sitting around the table, and I remember saying, ‘Have a great meal, I’ll talk to you in 12 days after I get back from my operation in Lebanon.’”
The juxtaposition of what White was doing and what his family was doing felt “like a sublime experience,” he says. “There was my family, sitting at the table with turkey and beer and watching football, and here I was on the other side of the world, protecting them in a way.”
In Jerusalem, the American Jewish Committee held its 11th annual Thanksgiving dinner for lone soldiers, but this was the first time dreidels, a menorah, sufganiyot (Israeli doughnuts) and Hanukkah gelt had a place at the table along with the turkey and stuffing.
“Just seeing all these American lone soldiers together means a lot to me,” said Noam Ivri, 28, from Miami. “It’s really important for me to go to events like this, because they’re the only ones who really understand what I’m going through.”
Among the nearly 50 lone soldiers who gathered to eat, drink and light Hanukkah candles were the Israeli paralympic athelete Moran Samuel and U.S.-born Knesset Member Dov Lipman. Both of them called the soldiers “inspiring” and expressed thanks for their service.
“To just be able to say, ‘I’m going to take a break from my own life and dedicate a few years of my life to defending Israel,’ is something that is obvious to us as Israelis, but it is not obvious for them,” Samuel said.
Lipman, a Maryland native, praised the soldiers’ courage and sacrifice.
“My grandmother was in Auschwitz,” he told them. “Now here you are sitting in a uniform, protecting the Jewish people. It’s nothing short of remarkable.”
Lipman related that he had wanted to serve after immigrating but was rejected because he was 32, with four children. Now, he told the group, he volunteers in the Border Police.
“On Thanksgiving,” Lipman said, “we remember a group of people with a dream, who got together and eventually led to the creation of the world’s greatest superpower. On Hanukkah, it’s the same thing. The Maccabees fought for their dream, for the people of Israel.”
The symbolism of American soldiers celebrating Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in Israel was a constant theme of the evening.
Yehuda Yeger, from Teaneck, New Jersey, explained why he was thankful this Thanksgiving. “I’m thankful to be a part of this country that shouldn’t have been and almost wasn’t,” he said, referring to Israel, where he is serving his second year in a tank unit.