the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at:

Thursday, November 23, 2006

No Pilgrims here

Someone in America mentioned in an email on Wednesday that she was leaving work early for Thanksgiving, which led me to this brilliant flash of insight: “Oh, it must be Thanksgiving tomorrow!”

My level of awareness of American holidays has dropped precipitously since leaving the country. There are myriad cues I took for granted in the U.S. that are virtually non-existent here in Israel: the mail circulars advertising Thanksgiving sales, the cranberry sauce on display at the supermarket, the cardboard Pilgrims in the store windows – and of course, the day off from school or work and the word “Thanksgiving” that comes preprinted on the calendar.

I know there are some Thanksgiving dinners that take place here, like the one run by the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), and less institutional ones that individuals or families arrange on their own. I have never personally attended a Thanksgiving dinner in Israel, though – not because I am opposed to it, but just because I have never been invited and have never cared enough to either seek an invite or organize a Turkey Day meal myself.

Growing up as an Orthodox Jew in America, I always thought Thanksgiving was kind of cool because you could both eat really well and watch TV on the same day – unlike Shabbat and most Jewish holidays, when you can stuff yourself silly as long as you don’t turn on any electrical appliances, or Sundays, when you can watch TV all day long but the only thing to eat is leftover chulent. It was also one of the few extended family gatherings that wasn’t a bar mitzvah or a funeral.

More than that, though, Thanksgiving was the one time a year when I really felt like a full-blooded American. This element of Thanksgiving didn’t hit home for me until I got to college, which was really the first time I was in close regular contact with non-Jews – what we yeshiva day-school graduates referred to as “the real world.” Participation in this world entailed missing the first day of orientation, which took place on Shabbat, and making quick friends with the people in my classes - since the seemingly endless succession of Jewish fall holidays that starts with Rosh Hashana and ends, finally, with Simchat Torah generally required quite a few missed classes and borrowed notes. (Sensibly, Israeli universities just wait until the holidays are over before they begin classes.) It also required frequent Friday night explanations to my dorm-mates that no, I was not getting dressed up to rush a sorority, I was just going to Shabbat dinner.

At the outset, then, I was slightly out of step with most of the other students I encountered. I wasn’t bothered by this. If anything, I relished the change from being in a situation where religious behavior was enforced by rabbis examining the length of girls’ skirts to being in one where I was solely responsible for my own behavior – and indeed, for my own identity, which is one of those things that tends to develop the most in the company of those who don’t share it.

But for all that, there was an incomparable sense of belonging in leaving college for the last weekend in November amid a flurry of “Happy Thanksgiving”s that - unlike the decidedly un-Jewish “Merry Christmas” and the false-sounding PC-ism of “Happy Holidays” – I could wholeheartedly accept and bestow on others. I could say “Have a good Thanksgiving” and mean it. I could say it and be fairly sure that my mental image of Thanksgiving was more or less the same as the person to whom I was wishing a happy one.

There are other secular American holidays, of course, but while I have been known to attend a Memorial Day barbecue or watch Fourth of July fireworks, those days lack the almost – let’s admit it, religious – rigor of Thanksgiving customs. There’s the turkey, the cranberry sauce, the gravy, the family sitting around the table. It seems like all you need is kiddush and challah, but then you think: Hey wait, the rest of America is doing this very same thing on this very same day. That feeling of being bound by some sort of communal enterprise is one I identify with Jewish rituals, but Thanksgiving is the one day a year when the community in question is America, and I am a part of it.

But all that was back then. Now I live in Israel and the only holiday I see signs of is Chanuka, in whose honor the bakeries are selling doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate or butterscotch. I don’t see much of a point in pursuing my American-ness outside of America. And I don’t really think about Thanksgiving except when someone mentions it and I vaguely remember that holiday when we could eat lots of yummy food and watch TV on the same day.

Crossposted to Israelity.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm an american jew who also made aliyah to israel. the fact that you grew up in america but never felt american makes me sick. how could you live your whole life avoiding non-jews when they comprise 98% of the population? that takes a lot of effort and shows a great amount of contempt for society. it's good for america that you left.

November 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

November 26, 2006  
Anonymous Yaakov said...

Hey "Anonymous" -

Let me get this straight: a Jew growing up in America, who attends Jewish schools (unlike most people, who attended public schools), goes to Synagogue on Shabbat (as oppossed to most people who do not) and because of this happens to not be around lots of non-Jews makes you sick? I also did not interact with most of the society around me, for the same reasons listed in this blog post. The same is true for most observant Jews in America. We did not celebrate Christmas or Easter, unlike most of the population. Does this expression of Freedom of Religion also make you sick?

Today in America, everyone is being treated to an onslaught of Christmas marketing. Judging from your comments, I assume that since you have made aliyah, you are missing this most American period of the year: the Christmas shopping season. I commend you for your American-ness. It is too bad for America that you left, since were you there, I assume that you would be spending your days interacting with the 98% of the population that the rest of us missed out on.

November 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

who said anything about christmas? i just find it extremely disturbing that a person who lived their entire life in america, could only feel kinda, sorta, but not really very american on one day of the year. what, were americans just aliens to be observed and dismissed?

November 26, 2006  

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