Thanksgiving in Israel isn't easy
(Kveller via JTA)—When I moved to Israel 11 years ago, I knew many things about my life would change. I knew I’d have to learn a new language, a new culture and give up lots of things about my old way of life. But a girl’s got to be honest with herself—there are some things in life you can give up on and some things you’d never dream of letting go. For me, a traditional Thanksgiving is one of those things I’m keeping, especially here in the Holy Land.
One thing you have to know about celebrating Thanksgiving in Israel is that while this may be the land of Milk and Honey, when it comes to Thanksgiving, you have to shop early to get your turkey. And I don’t mean three days before the holiday. Otherwise you will end up having the conversation I did a few years back. It went something like this:
Phone: Ring, Ring.
Guy at store: “Ken/Yes?” (That’s how people answer the phone here.)
Me: “Shalom. Do you have any whole turkeys?”
Guy at store: “We don’t have any turkey.”
Me: “But last year you had whole turkeys.”
Guy at store: But this year we don’t have turkey.
Me (who has become Israeli through osmosis and knows that a no in Israel is just an invitation to push harder): “You are telling me you have no turkey?”
Guy at store: “I already said we don’t have turkey.”
Me (now very, very Israeli, i.e. with a tone that says doesn’t mess with me, buddy): “You are telling me you don’t have any schnitzel hodu/turkey breast?”
Guy at store: “Oh, we have turkey schnitzel.”
Me: “And you don’t have any shokiem, legs?”
Guy at store: “Oh, we have shokiem.”
Me: “And you don’t have any necks for making turkey soup?”
Guy at store: “Oh, we have necks.”
So as I suspected, no turkey meant no whole turkey, and thus, last year there was nothing to carve. But the breast and legs looked just lovely anyway arranged on a plate with ever so much care.
Now on to the trimmings: Something else you need to know about celebrating Thanksgiving in Israel—or should I say any major holiday that is not a Jewish one—is that we don’t have Costco or any other convenient one-stop shops. So you will need to go to many, many stores until you find all of your ingredients. That is, of course, if you want your table to have any resemblance to the one you grew up with back home in the States.
I, like many of my friends, know to start scouting the stores for specialty ingredients months in advance. Let me explain: For canned pumpkin, you have to buy it at one of three grocery stores during the months they carry it. If it’s in stock and the cans aren’t dented, grab an extra one.
As for cranberry sauce, thank God Ocean Spray has found its way to the Holy Land—you can find it at most supermarkets and even some mini-marts in both jelly and whole berry form. I say take one of each. You never know what your guests will like.
Sweet potatoes and frozen green beans can be obtained without much trouble, but if you are planning on decorating that green bean casserole with French’s Fried Onions, start scouting early. We’re talking June, and if you find a can, just buy it. Although it may be frightening to think about, the chances of finding it anywhere close to the month you are going to need it is slim, and let’s face it, those things will literally keep forever.
Woe to me, Stove Top Stuffing isn’t kosher, so as for stuffing, I had to learn how to make it myself. Sage and celery are the only tricky parts. Celery is a matter of catching the grocer on the right day, and sage you’ll need to import or buy it at the bulk spice store and run it through your food processor to a nice consistency.
And last but not least, the canned, spray, non-dairy whipped cream. Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without that little slice of hydrogenated fat from heaven. It’s only once a year, right? Well, at least that’s what I tell myself when I reach for the leftovers the morning after.
The aroma of Thanksgiving teases me as I write this. That smell always makes me so happy. Luckily for me, ever since the “no turkey” incident a few years back, I have since found a butcher who I now call every year in the beginning of November to reserve my whole bird, which costs about 60 bucks, if you can imagine that.
But it’s worth it, because even if we live here in Israel, no matter how much we have acculturated, we’re still American and there are some traditions you can’t give up on, like family, friends, and great food. For me, thinking about what I am grateful for isn’t something I reserve exclusively for the last Thursday in November. Living here in Jerusalem makes me think about just how much there is to be grateful for every single day.
Shifrah Devorah Witt is the author of “From Me to We: A guide to the first year of marriage and beyond,” and co-author of “The Complete Asian Kosher Cookbook” and “The Best of Mexican Kosher Cooking.”
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