Calling Thanksgiving Christmas is Just the Israeli Way
Living in the Galilee, bringing Thanksgiving to the Holy Land is no small feat.
It had been six months since I made the big move from the States to my husband’s native home, Israel, and as that first November abroad unfolded, I began longing for parades, turkey, pie and holiday sales.
Reflecting upon Thanksgiving had made this American gal long for friends and family back in Detroit, and since my in-laws finally lived within proximity to actually invite over for a meal, I thought they might enjoy a traditional American holiday dinner.
Thanksgiving, I figured, contained all the requisite elements for an Israeli celebration: endless amounts of food, plenty of family and, of course, tradition — sans the Israeli fare.
Spices not withstanding, I actually convinced myself that it was my duty as an American expat to foist a Thanksgiving dinner onto my husband’s very Mizrachi [non-European] family.
Naturally, it didn’t quite go as I imagined. Actually it didn’t go at all.
In explaining to my mother-in-law about this uniquely American holiday, where families get together and eat, she of course thought I was talking about Christmas. I explained that it’s not Christmas but an American holiday, which required I buy a whole turkey.
She couldn’t understand why I would buy a turkey when we had perfectly good chicken in the freezer. The whole idea of turkey hit the rocks when she learned that I planned to stuff it with bread. She then suggested I roast a chicken with rice and pine nuts.
Maybe I wasn’t explaining Thanksgiving to properly suit an Israeli palate. I figured I needed mouth-watering images to help paint the picture so I downloaded a photograph of cranberry sauce from the Internet, but sadly it horrified everyone. “Why like this?” was the general statement.
By the end, after retelling the story I learned in second grade about the Pilgrims, and how pumpkin pie and green bean casserole were absolute musts at the table, I felt defeated.
That was it, no American Thanksgiving. I was like a Jewish Ralphie from A Christmas Story, except I was doomed to eat a different bird in a non-American setting.
Was it me? Did I give up too soon? I turned to my online community of other expat American women here married to Israelis. A group poll revealed the most challenging ingredients to find locally to recreate this most American of meals includes: cranberries — fresh, frozen or canned; pumpkin pie filling; and a whole turkey. Basically the entire thing.
Each of my American friends’ mothers-in-law suggested they cook something else like chicken, fish or beef. Each of their Israeli families was grossed out by pumpkin pie. No one understood that it wasn’t Christmas.
Israelis love food. At any meal, ranging from an average Tuesday lunch to Rosh Hashanah dinner itself, the table is buried with an array of salatim (chopped salads, dips and spreads). Meals are eaten fast and furiously. No bone is left un-sucked, no finger left un-licked and no noises are spared.
My Israeli wedding, for example, is a case study in Israel’s food madness. Guests enter to an appetizer buffet wonderland. It’s easy to fill up on the small plate masterpieces. After the chuppah and the first round of an intense dance party, the wedding guests sit to eat.
Individually ordered plates arrive. Looks like a meal? Wrong! Not even close to the main event. Of course, each table is filled with dozens of salatim. After more intense dancing, this time to Israeli pop music fueled by vodka and Red Bull, it’s time for the main course — and platters of grilled meat.
Lastly, there is late-night coffee and an impressive cache of fancy parve petit fours and ice cream. No one leaves an Israeli wedding without enough food to digest for the rest of the week. There is a method to this food system and it is distinctively Israeli.
However, Israeli’s love for food is strictly of the home field variety. Venturing into other genres is “too exotic” for the general population. “Gourmet” is not considered something good. (The thinking is “it’s probably weird, expensive and will leave you hungry for mom’s food.”)
This year, my second, I’m more grounded. I know my way around a supermarket. I won’t be settling for a chicken. I may have to reconstitute dried cranberries, skip the French’s Fried Onions and eat an entire pumpkin pie alone. But, darn it, I will do it! I vow to stuff a turkey this Thanksgiving, even if I need to appease the family by covering the table with salatim and calling it Christmas.
— Shana Subelsky Tibi lives with her husband, Rotem, and infant son Adir in Moshav Lappidot, the Galilee region of Northern Israel. She is originally from West Bloomfield. She loves pumpkin pie.