Thanksgiving in Israel

by Brian on November 22, 2007

in Only in Israel

(This week’s post is a reprint from last year answering the perennial question of “what do you do in Israel on Thanskgiving?” Enjoy!)

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 (both countries were founded in 1948 after shaking off British rule), 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.

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 (despite the occasional tsuris).

I’m thankful that I’ve been able to write this blog every week for the past five years.

I’m thankful I had the pluck to move to Israel some 13 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.

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