Is Thanksgiving the Most Jewish - and Israeli - Holiday?

Back home, Thanksgiving was an American holiday with an Israeli immigrant twist. Being away from it makes me feel like the Pilgrims in Plymouth.

Yael Miller
Yael Miller
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Yael Miller
Yael Miller

The table is set and everyone is anxious to carve The Bird. Families are gathered together –grown up children, grandkids, friends of friends, and eager parents - all excited to be reunited. It’s a bit chilly outside, and the windows are dotted with bright yellow and orange leaves. The table is lined with cranberry sauce, cornbread, sweet potatoes, and hummus.

My Thanksgiving celebrations were like many other Americans, with a few modifications. Growing up with Israeli parents usually meant an “Israeli twist” on every holiday - including Thanksgiving - and a time to celebrate with the other Israelis in the area where I grew up.

As most Americans know, Thanksgiving celebrates the Pilgrims’ meal in Plymouth in the 1600s. According to folklore, Pilgrims and Native Americans shared a meal together, and enjoyed saying thanks to Providence for their meal and healthy harvest. Of course, this rosy history is refuted by several historians and Native Americans, but, at the end of the day, the point of Thanksgiving today is to give thanks to your family and friends.

Thanksgiving for Israeli Americans often replicates that first meal in Plymouth: a group of immigrants attempting to embrace the local food and atmosphere of a new land, as the children come home from school explaining stories and traditions completely unknown to those of their immigrant parents.

People love Thanksgiving in America. The food, the tradition, and the football are all parts of most normal American Thanksgiving feasts. Traditional harvest foods adorn the table and many families pray and say grace to show thanks to themselves and their faith. Families are together for the first time since the summer, and Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season.

Our Thanksgiving celebrations were just like those of other American families, but with a twist. Turkey, cornbread and cranberry sauce? Check, but it was always accompanied by Israeli-inspired salads, ranging from red peppers to tomato and cucumber cut into miniscule pieces. Tradition? Check – year-by-year, men and women discussed the latest political event in Israel – from economics to elections. Football? Well, no Football wasn’t there. But I’m sure if there were clips of the Israeli soccer team, someone would have started talking about that.

For the past few years, I’ve been unable to go home for Thanksgiving, and, to be honest, when I go to someone else’s house, it always feels a bit like cheating. The sumptuous mashed potatoes with gravy don’t feel like my mother’s roasted potatoes with onion. When guests seated around the table take turns in saying what they are thankful for, I miss the loud, buffet-style meal I’m used to. And when everyone watches or plays football — a sport that I have scarce knowledge of, even after living in the Southern United States for over twenty years – I feel alienated, taking part in a tradition that is so similar yet so different from my own.

I feel homesick for our traditional, Israeli Thanksgiving. I want my parents’ food, and I want my brother’s provocative political debates. In a bizarre way, this most American of all holidays makes me yearn for my Israeli heritage. I think of the Pilgrims, and how many of them probably wished they were surrounded by the food and traditions they knew when they came to the new land, or the way the Native Americans felt when they were suddenly encircled by foreigners with no experience of the North American land.

That’s probably the point of Thanksgiving: recognizing that, at a certain point, a majority of Americans were immigrants to a new land, very far away. Perhaps that makes Thanksgiving the most Jewish and Israeli of holidays.

Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

A giant facsimile of a whimsical Thanksgiving Day turkey.Credit: Reuters

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