Several years ago, liberated from university life, I found myself on the other side of the Atlantic, living in Israel with Thanksgiving on its way. I had spent part of my childhood in Israel, but I was born in the states and spent most of my life in Virginia. Fearing that the homesickness I had so far kept at bay would win if I let that fourth Thursday come and go uncelebrated I decided that Israel or no, I was not going to let it pass me by.
I called some friends, a few cousins, my grandparents, and explained the concept of the holiday. I swore up and down I was not making it up and invited them over to celebrate.
“Only in America could they have a holiday for saying thank you,” my cousin sniffed.
“Isn’t it great?” I asked. I had developed a remarkably impervious skin in my three months there. Sarcasm rolled off me like butter.
The day of the big event I went to the store.
The fact that Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Israel meant there was no pre-holiday rush at the grocery store nor was there a last minute rush on turkeys. The unfortunate part, which I only realized once I started shopping, was that the ingredients so necessary for the feast were not likely to be found in a Middle Eastern grocery store.
Finding a turkey was easy. Sure the butcher gave me a funny look, whole turkeys not being a common item, but he found a small one for me and wrapped it in white wax paper.
My grandmother, who came with me to the grocery store, was surprised when I cried out with delight at finding a small pile of sweet potatoes, racing over to pick up several tubers. She had never seem anyone buy a sweet potato before. My grandmother is seventy-three years old.
Sadly, I relinquished stuffing as an item I wasn’t going to find ready made in a bag. I would have to make it from scratch, something I had only heard of as a vague possibility in the past.
The only truly vital ingredient left was the cranberry sauce. There were no fresh bags of cranberries to be had for love or money and I was certain canned cranberry sauce was too much to ask for in a land that didn’t have instant stuffing. Lacking this crucial Thanksgiving sauce, I wandered the aisles of the grocery store considering what I could use. Cherry pie filling? Raspberry jam?
Then I saw it. Tucked away on a bottom shelf, near the canned corn was a single dusty can of cranberry sauce. It was the only one in the entire store, perhaps in the entire country, and had probably been in that exact spot for years. I grabbed it.
I rushed home with my loot and cooked all that day. By evening, after several international phone calls to my mother, one incinerated dish towel, and a tower of dishes in the sink, I had a true blue American Thanksgiving feast waiting to be served.
My friends and family sat around the table and looked at me, slightly shocked.
“All this food?” a friend gasped. “Do you really expect us to eat it?”
“You bought this in Israel?” my cousin pointed with nostrils flared at the bright orange casserole of sweet potatoes.
“Now we give thanks for the good things in our lives,” I said, ignoring them all.
Imagine the almost painfully embarrassing silence that fell around the table. Familiar faces looked at each other, doubtfully eyed the unfamiliar food, and skeptically raised an eyebrow at me, ridiculous matriarch. Did I really mean it? I did.
Feeling the heat rise in my own face, I started.
I am thankful to be here. I am thankful that you are all here celebrating with me…
So it began. We each said our piece around the table. They blushed as they murmured “Thank you”, and dug in to eat.
By the end of dinner the sweet potato dish was empty..
“Truly wonderful,” my cousin said, kissing my cheek on his way out the door. “Strange,” he said after a moment. “But good.”
This cheerful, no strings-attached holiday didn’t solve any major problems. It did not affect the peace process or international relations in any way. But it did, for one evening, make everyone glow. By the end of the night everyone was feeling a bit friendlier and less embarrassed about saying thanks, about being grateful.
The Indians and Pilgrims were not always allies, before or after that famous meal. But in reflecting, it does not surprise me there was a lull in hostilities. Nothing seems to calm down anger like food. Perhaps it is no wonder the meal traditionally has turkey and several carbohydrate dishes in it - soporifics proven to be calming to the nervous system. Maybe what the peace process needs are long tables set up in the alleys of old Jerusalem, set with crisp linens, fine china, and sparkling silverware. Upon each long table there should be a huge glistening turkey and mounds of mashed potatoes. The seating should alternate Muslim and Jew. And then let them break bread together. Let them eat cake. Then wait and see if anyone feels like fighting at all.