Thanksgiving in Israel

by Brian on November 23, 2006

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel,The Old Country

Every year, just about this time of the month, I get a flurry of emails from friends and colleagues all with pretty much the same message. It goes something like this:

“Happy Thanksgiving, that is if you celebrate it over there…er, do you?”

So, what do immigrants from the U.S. to Israel do on the fourth Thursday of November? Well, for many years, we kept up the traditions of the old country. Together with a group of friends, we got together for a feast of turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce (if we could find it in the stores…difficult but not impossible), and pumpkin pie.

As a slight twist, we made it an adult only dinner party, to contrast it from the weekly meal with guests that we already celebrated once a week with the whole family…you know, the one called Shabbat

But as the years rolled by and we got farther and farther from our old life in the States, the imperative to gorge ourselves and pretend we were interested in sports began to fade. With no Macy’s Day Parade to set the early morning mood, Thanksgiving became just another workday. Still, we kept joining our friends for the obligatory repast.

Until, a few years ago, when my wife Jody and I found ourselves in a very different Thanksgiving locale: India. An opportunity arose for us to take two weeks without the kids touring Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Varanassi. We had a fantastic time (you can read about it here). But we missed the annual Thanksgiving bash.

That turned out to be OK. Because we replaced it with a new tradition, one that is in many ways much more Israeli. Now on Thanskgiving, we make it a point to eat Indian food.

What’s the connection? Here’s where it gets linguistically improbable. The Hebrew for “to give thanks” is l’hodot. The common Hebrew expression “hodu lashem” means “give thanks to God.” Hodu is also the Hebrew name of the country of India. India…thanks…Thanksgiving.

But there’s one more thing: hodu is also a Hebrew synonym meaning turkey. Turkey day, day of giving thanks, India day. How weird is that? Madonna is probably yanking on the red strings big time right about now.

But it feels right. Despite Israelis’ predilection for all things American, their connection with India is equally special. In addition to the historic parallels (see my article last week), India has become a place of pilgrimage for post-army young people. Tens of thousands travel there to seek enlightenment…or just a space to explore what it means to not have to get up in the morning and don a uniform.

When we were in India, a young man approached us and started speaking in Hebrew. He wasn’t Israeli – he was an Indian salesperson, but had chosen to learn Hebrew as a second language, figuring it would be just as useful – if not more so – than English.

On their return, Israelis who can’t get enough of the India experience groove out at Boogie Nights, a Jerusalem free-form ethno-world dance music party held twice a month, where the focus is on creative expression and not finding a partner to hook up with. Jody and I have gone several times and it’s a great way to get in touch you’re your inner Indian.

Over the years, thousands of Indian Jews have immigrated to Israel (see the wonderful movie Turn Left At the End of The World for some of the story); last week, some 200 members of the Bnei Menashe community who have been living in a remote corner of India near Myanmar and claim to be descended from a lost Jewish tribe, arrived at Ben Gurion airport. Another 7,000 Bnei Menashe remain in India.

For our Anglo-Indian Thanksgiving this year, Jody made a delightful meal of poppyseed chipatis, lentil and apple dahl and mango-date chutney. Then we sat down and watched “Return from India,” a cheesy but picturesque Israeli movie that takes place along the Ganges River.

Despite our new traditions, we still keep at least one thing from our Thanksgivings of yesteryear. We try to give thanks for all the blessings we have in our lives. For me, that’s easy.

I’m thankful for my beautiful wife who I love dearly.

I’m thankful for my adorable and rambunctious children who give me no end of joy (and the occasional tsuris).

I’m thankful that I’ve been able to write this blog every week for the past four and a half years.

I’m thankful I had the pluck to move to Israel some 12 years ago…and the courage to stick it out.

And I’m thankful that I’ve been able to travel to so many places around the world…including India where I picked up some (but not all) of the traditions that make Thanksgiving in Israel special.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous November 26, 2006 at 2:55 pm

An Indian-based Thanksgiving is logical also because the first Thanksgiving celebrated the assistance provided by the Indians for that first successful harvest (of the settlers). Er.. hmmm .. right?

2 Anonymous November 26, 2006 at 3:02 pm

Thanksgiving in Israel .. on November 24th I did a quick scan of various local (Israeli) websites to find nukes in Iran, slaughters in Iraq, riots in Lebanon, kassams from Gaza .. then I opened the CNN website and saw the lead story showing a huge picture of one of the floats in the Thanksgiving Day parade. This was followed by some moments of my questioning why I was here, reflecting on the easy life in the US and the impact of my aliyah on my family. But then I snapped back to reality and remembered I'd rather be here than anywhere .. and rational seeming thoughts have no place in that decision. This Normal Life helps me smile during some of the challenges and helps me know I'm not alone (and not going crazy).

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