Thanksgiving tradition mostly lives for expat Americans in Israel

Thanksgiving tradition mostly lives for expat Americans in Israel


Thanksgiving is Thursday, and Fred Casden would kill for a cranberry.

“If I could find some fresh cranberries, or even frozen, I would make my sauce,” lamented Casden, an avid home chef who moved to Israel from Teaneck with his wife and daughter. “What they have here in the can is so lame I won’t touch it.”

Like many other Israelis brought up in the United States, the Casdens will be enjoying a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at the home of friends they met on the plane bringing them to their new home in Israel in July 2007. “But I’m not sure our daughter will get home from the army in time to participate,” he said of the Thursday evening get-together.

For Laura Savren, it was not the berries but the bird that proved to be problematic.

About three months after she and her family made aliyah in 1999, Savren walked up to the meat counter of her local supermarket and asked to order a whole turkey.

“They looked at me like I was nuts,” the Boston native recalled, laughing. Israelis eat plenty of turkey – usually in the form of schnitzel or shwarma – but almost never whole, since Israeli ovens are generally too small to accommodate the large bird.

Savren later learned through the Anglo-American network where she lived in Ra’anana that a butcher in town could help. She went in to order the bird, but it was too late. Finally, she found a frozen turkey imported from America in a specialty store that caters to immigrants. The same store also carried the cranberries, canned pumpkin, and mini-marshmallows that she needed to prepare the family’s first Thanksgiving dinner in Israel, with all the trimmings.

Adaya Mor said celebrating Thanksgiving with other Israeli soldiers who had left behind their families in America provided a needed boost.

“It’s my favorite holiday,” Savren said. “I love the food. I love making a turkey.”

Thanksgiving was first celebrated in America in 1621 by American pilgrims who wanted to show thanks for the harvest. It was proclaimed a national holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln.

Each year, the American Jewish Committee hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for about 40 soldiers from the United States who are serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Adaya Mor, 20, served in the IDF through Garin Tzabar, which groups lone soldiers together on kibbutzim, providing them with a host family and a support system. She made aliyah from Cheshire, Conn., in 2007.

About a week before Thanksgiving last year, Mor said, she realized she might not have the opportunity to celebrate the holiday.

“I never would have thought it would hit me, that I would really want a Thanksgiving dinner,” said Mor, an Israeli native who grew up in the United States from the age of 5.

Once Mor’s family arrived in the United States, American families invited them to Thanksgiving dinner. Soon her family began holding its own Thanksgiving celebrations.

Two days before the holiday last year, the AJC called Mor with an invitation to its Thanksgiving dinner.

“I was just in shock,” she says. “I was so thankful I was invited.”

Mor added that celebrating the holiday with other soldiers who had left their families in America to come to Israel gave her a boost she really needed.

“Sometimes you need people to remind you why you are doing this,” she mused.

Fred Casden gets ready for Thanksgiving. Will somebody please send him some cranberries? Abigail Klein Leichman

Mor has heard that the American students at Hebrew University, where she is a student, gather for a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings.

For many “Anglo” expatriates wanting to continue the tradition, it’s more common to move Thanksgiving dinner to Friday night.

“We always buy a turkey [for that weekend] but we have it on Shabbat since we have to make a big meal anyway, and nobody’s home on Thursday night,” said Roseanne Greenwald, who made aliyah in 1993 from Teaneck and lives in Tzur Yigal with her husband and kids.

“But we do have a group of friends who get together on Thursday for Thanksgiving and some years we have joined them. We have a lot to be thankful for; America was a wonderful place that gave us the concept of giving thanks for what we have.”

Some ex-pat Americans don’t feel the need to celebrate the holiday.

Lauren Dan of Pardes Hannah, who made aliyah from Connecticut 17 years ago at the age of 22, married an Israeli and moved to an area where there were no other Anglos.

“I became Israeli very quickly,” she said. “I feel so much more Israeli than I do American.”

Thanksgiving is an important tradition in her family back in America, and she calls them each year to wish them a happy holiday. She even admits to an occasional craving for her mother’s corn pudding. But she said she does not miss the yearly celebration.

Her twin daughters, 9, and son, 8, “have no idea” about Thanksgiving. When she questioned them about the holiday, her query was met with quizzical expressions until she asked in Hebrew if they are familiar with Chag HaHodaya.

Yes, they responded. They saw Zack and Cody celebrate it on the Disney Channel show “Suite Life.”

Though the Greenwalds keep the tradition going, Roseanne Greenwald recalled that her Hebrew school teacher in Central Jersey once told his students that Thanksgiving isn’t necessary for Jews. “Why? Because we [already] thank HaShem every time we put food in our mouths; every time we say ‘Hodu l’Hashem ki tov [give thanks to God for He is good].'”

Hodu, by the way, is also the Hebrew word for “turkey.”

Fred Casden, who wouldn’t be celebrating were it not for the invitation from friends, explained the disconnect on a practical level. “When you’re in America, it’s a day off, so you have the leisure to spend that Thursday cooking like everyone else,” he said.

“Here, no one is doing it, so it becomes a non-event – just like days which are important in Israel can never be as important in New Jersey because what everyone else is doing has a big effect on you. You can’t have a holiday by yourself, except maybe your birthday.”

Which is why those new Israelis who do celebrate Thanksgiving tend to do so with other former Americans.

The Savrens have often invited friends of different nationalities to their Friday-night Thanksgiving table. This year’s guest list includes an American family, an Israeli who grew up in Europe, a Dutchman, and his American girlfriend.

Aside from the fact that non-Americans often find the traditional dishes odd – Israeli guests, Savren said, take one look at the cranberry sauce and spend the rest of the meal pushing it around their plate – she says the meal is most successful with other Americans “because they get it.”

JTA/Jewish Standard

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