Thanksgiving in Israel

By Cynthia Buchbinder

Thanksgiving in Israel

My father and I stood at the counter of the local butcher shop.

The owner turned to us. “Yes?”

“I’d like to buy a turkey,” I said.

“The breast or the legs and neck?” he asked.

“I want to buy a whole turkey.”

“Ah. For a whole turkey, I have to order one special. Maybe I could have it in two days?” He shrugged.

Oh, no! Thanksgiving was in four days. What if it didn’t arrive in time?

Years before, my husband and I had decided to move to Israel. We were blessed with two baby girls, an 18 month old and a 3 month old, so I struggled with diapers and learned to cook on the tiny European appliances. The days flowed past in a never-ending stream of dishes and laundry and stumbling over Hebrew when shopping. . The children grew up as little Israelis, speaking Hebrew better than English. Even though Israelis are very nice to their mothers, Mother’s Day itself, alas, passed with no advertisements reminding us to call Mother. Even though we’re thankful for many things, Thanksgiving passed without a special meal. The Fourth of July turned into the fifth and sixth and seventh seamlessly.

Then one year after we had been abroad many years, my parents called: they were coming for a visit in November.

“And the exciting part is that we can have the Thanksgiving meal with you!” crowed my mother over the phone.

“Oh, of course,” I said, swallowing. I had just a few months ago forgotten to call on Mother’s Day. How could I disappoint her by telling her that we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving across the pond?

The holiday had somehow slipped into a fog of childhood memories. I had grown up with lavish Thanksgiving meals: giant butterball turkeys, bowls of crystal red cranberry sauce, mounds of mashed potatoes and mountains of parker house rolls. I remember setting the table with our best china and the goblets that we only took out a few times a year for special occasions. I especially remember inserting linen napkins into the glazed ceramic napkin holders that I had made in the Camp Fire Girls camp and placing them next to each plate. My mother was no cook: it was always a miracle when the turkey came out looking like a turkey, so when she took the turkey out of the oven, she always called the children over to gather around the glistening, plump bird to admire it and compliment her.

Now I, who was no great shakes as a cook either, had to come up with a Thanksgiving dinner. I hoped the turkey would come in time; it would be hard to present a traditional Thanksgiving table without one.

Two days later, I went, with a thumping heart, to collect the turkey. The butcher reached into his freezer, and, thank G-d, pulled out a turkey, a long, stringy thing that dangled from his hand. I gulped. It didn’t look like a butterball – it looked more like a chicken that had shot up from childhood to a lanky teenager.

I came into the house, and held up the turkey.

“Ooh, Mommy, what’s that?” asked my 12 year old daughter.

“It’s a turkey,” I said. “We’re going to make a Thanksgiving dinner for Grandma and Grandpa, and turkey is the main course.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” said my mother.

I pulled the turkey out of the bag and tried to fold the legs over the body to fit into the pan of my small European oven. The oven bags wouldn’t go over it, so I dusted it with spices, put aluminum foil over it and hoped for the best. But when I tried to fit it into the oven, the top brushed the top of the oven and the legs stuck out the front.

I had a sudden inspiration: I called my neighbor who had an American-sized oven, and explained that I was making a Thanksgiving dinner for my parents. She was happy to let me put the turkey in her oven, and even promised to baste it and to call me when it was done. She was a good cook, so now at least I had no worries that it would burn.

I managed the mashed potatoes fine, and even made some parker house rolls from the cookbook my mother had dredged up from my bookcase. Then I remembered the cranberry sauce. The only cranberries I had seen were dried ones, and I wasn’t at all sure I could make anything eatable from those on such short notice. I asked my parents if we could have applesauce and color it red.

“Don’t color it red, dear,” said my mother. “We can have the meal without cranberry sauce.”

When I brought the turkey over from my neighbor and put it on the table, I was a bit disappointed. It wasn’t the splendid, shining bird my mother had produced when I was a girl. The table was set with our best dishes, but we didn’t have linen napkins or pretty goblets.

Then, as my father flourished the carving knife over the turkey and my husband took a picture, I looked around the table. My son was admiring my father’s carving technique. My mother was happily telling my daughters of Thanksgivings long ago, and they were hanging on her every word. I smiled.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” I said.

About this writer

  • Cynthia Buchbinder and her husband moved from America to Israel 28 years ago. They have eight children, six are married with children of their own and two are still at home.

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