Gratitude & Latkes

If there was ever a time for Diaspora Jews to consider making aliyah to Israel, this is the year.  I’m not talking about the economy, security or weather.  Rather, how many more three-day holidays are overseas yidden willing to endure?  Anyone with even a smattering of Jewish literacy knows that, except for Rosh Hashanah, the commanded two-day holidays are only one day in Israel.  Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that I’m only now digesting the last of the teiglach, kneidlach, kugel and gefilte fish we consumed in September.  Even more distressing, my semi-annual hygienist appointment at the end of October was a tad more complex because of brisket morsels that were stubbornly lodged in gum-pockets of my otherwise pristine mouth.
It may be a result of my iron-clad religiosity, but I’ve always tried to remain vigilant against any wee-stirrings of schadenfreude, taking no pleasure in the discomforts and bad fortunes of others.  And still, when I heard the moaning/complaints of my overseas children, mother, siblings, friends about the endless KP duty and inability to focus on their prayers because of overwhelming food concerns, I admit I felt a little bit self-righteousness.
This year, however, the playing field has been leveled to my satisfaction with the overlap of Thanksgiving and Chanukah.  After all, for a religious American transplant to Jerusalem, it’s a little difficult to justify serving a sumptuous New England-style feast on a Thursday night when Shabbos arrives twenty-four hours later.  In the past, I’d defer to the Georgian calendar and typically host a cultural hybrid called “Thanksgiving Shabbos.”  Replete with the commanded Kiddush over wine and challah, my banquet continued with turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, acorn squash and apple crumble.
But this year, we’re laying out a Thanksgiving spread on the same night as the rest of the Yankee-Doodle world!
Turkey is considered a specialty item in the local super and one must order it well in advance of the holiday.  Weeks ago my supermarket butcher, Assam, began pressuring me to make sure my family wouldn’t face disappointment.  He knows all about our carnivorous habits including my South African husband’s love of fricassee, and our newest passion: home-made beef-biltong, perfect for safaris and other jungle sports.
But something weird happened when I went to pick up my bird.  Much to my shock and horror, I began sobbing.  Well, not sobbing exactly.  Weeping.  Sort of.
There she lay, encased in glass and I was suddenly taken back to a time when I visited libraries, diners, classrooms, homes and haberdasheries that were festooned in the colors of autumn; ears of dried Indian-corn hung from entrance doorways and tables groaning under the weight of gourd-and-pine cone centerpieces.
(It behooves one to know that there are, indeed, some places in Israel where one can gather pretty fallen leaves with colors so vibrant that they evoke memories of homework assignments from early childhood that entailed pasting leaves from oaks, poplars and maple trees into a speckled notebook.)
The Holiday Season always proved tricky for me and my afternoon Hebrew school classmates because, whether we tried or not, Christmas wasn’t ours.
“And you enjoy your holiday!” was the prevailing refrain unless, magnanimously, a shopkeeper might ecumenically add, “Merry Ha-Nu-Ka to you!”  Despite the good-natured smile and sincerity behind the words, we instinctively knew that Christmas is for Christians.
But Thanksgiving had always proved to be a magnificent annual pit-stop, resonating with brotherhood.  It mattered little whether your ancestors arrived via the Mexican border, Ellis Island, on a Cuban fishing boat or aboard the Mayflower.  We – all of us – were included.  Indeed, the supermarket check-out girl named Megan or Theresa bade everyone “Happy Thanksgiving!” and those of us included Murray, Bernie, Harvey and Sylvia.
Feeling wistful, I recall that it had always been my assignment to provide dessert for Thanksgiving supper at my mother’s home.  Baked apple patisseries with lattice-work crusts, pecan tarts and cranberry bread were favorites; pumpkin pie was a little outre for my yeshiva kids, which meant that Mom and I usually polished it off while cleaning up the kitchen.
Twenty years after my last States-side Thanksgiving, I bemoan not having a fireplace.  It is difficult to impart memories of roaring fires and sipping hot, spiked cider with cinnamon sticks.  Wistfully, I can remember a veil of sleep descending as we struggled to remain awake enough to watch 16-millimeter black-and-white family movies.  My cousins and I would laugh until we wept, someone inevitably screaming, “Stop the film!  I need the bathroom!”  The only pause in levity came when those who were forever-loved and long-dead appeared on screen, captured for eternity on fading celluloid.
It makes me happy to know that this year, along with latkes, dreidle spinning and the lighting of the menorah, I’ll be able to share with my children and grandchildren stories of what it felt like to be a school girl in New York City more than fifty years ago.  Perhaps I’ll regale my guests by sharing the fun of Thanksgiving Friendship Day in P.S. 63 when 4th grade teacher Mrs. Kowalski, instructed us to bring in our favorite holiday foods to share with our classmates.  Debbie Marcotrigiano served meat-and-mozzarella lasagna alongside my mother’s matzo-ball chicken soup and Meadow Takahisa’s horse-meat sashimi.
I am proud of the decision I made to live in the land of our forefathers — the ones who came before the Pilgrims — but there are times, still, that I wish for someone to hold my hand and validate a history of red, white and blue ethics that defined the woman I would eventually become.  It might be sad that I cannot reserve a Carvel Gobble-Gobble cake, but this is a disappointment I’ll just have to live with.

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