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.