Thanksgiving tradition mostly lives for expat Americans in Israel


KARNEI SHOMRON, West Bank (JTA) — About three months after she and her family made aliyah, Laura Savren walked up to the meat counter of her local supermarket and asked to order a whole turkey.

“They looked at me like I was nuts,” Savren recalls, laughing.

The Boston native, who made aliyah with her husband and two young daughters in 1999, then heard through the Anglo-American network where she lived in Ra’anana that a butcher in town could get a whole turkey in time for Thanksgiving.

She went in to order the bird, but it was too late. 

Savren, 56, finally found a frozen turkey imported from America in a specialty store in Ra’anana that caters to immigrants. The same store also carried the cranberries, canned pumpkin and mini-marshmallows that she needed to prepare the family’s first Thanksgiving dinner in Israel, with all the trimmings.

Her family is among many expatriate Americans who continue the Thanksgiving tradition in Israel.

Thanksgiving was first celebrated in America in 1621 by American pilgrims who wanted to show thanks for the harvest. It was proclaimed a national holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln.

Though it’s not a religious holiday, it can take on religious overtones.

For the Savrens, Thanksgiving is mostly about the food.

“It’s my favorite holiday,” Savren says. “I love the food. I love making a turkey.”

Finding that turkey has become easier over the years. Savern had been buying her turkeys from a butcher in nearby Kfar Shamaryahu, which supplies the American diplomat families with their birds, but now she orders one at a nearby mega-supermarket.

Each year, the American Jewish Committee hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for about 40 soldiers from the United States who are serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Adaya Mor, 20, recently finished her service in the army’s Garin Tzabar, which groups lone soldiers together on kibbutzim, providing them with a host family and a support system. She made aliyah from Cheshire, Conn., in 2007.

About a week before Thanksgiving last year, she says, Mor realized she might not have the opportunity to celebrate the holiday.

“I never would have thought it would hit me, that I would really want a Thanksgiving dinner,” says Mor, an Israel native who grew up in the United States from the age of 5.

Once they arrived in the United States, Mor says, American families invited her family to have Thanksgiving dinner. Soon the family began holding their own family Thanksgiving celebrations.

Two days before the holiday last year, the AJC called Mor with an invitation to its Thanksgiving dinner.

“I was just in shock,” she says. “I was so thankful I was invited.”

Mor acknowledges that the AJC dinner was “a different Thanksgiving” but also “really special.” Celebrating the holiday with other soldiers who had left their families in America behind to come to Israel gave her a boost she really needed.

“Sometimes you need people to remind you why you are doing this,” she muses.

The meal, she says, “meant a lot to me.”

Mor is not sure what she will be doing this Thanksgiving, but she has heard that the American students at Hebrew University, where she is currently studying, gather for a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings.

Some expat Americans don’t feel the need to celebrate the holiday.

Lauren Dan of Pardes Hannah, who made aliyah from Connecticut 17 years ago at the age of 22, says “I do not miss it at all.”

Dan met and married an Israeli during her participation in Otzma, a yearlong program in Israel for young adults. She was one of the few Americans that her husband had ever met, and the couple moved to an area where there were no other Anglos.

“I became Israeli very quickly,” she says. “I feel so much more Israeli than I do American.”

Dan says Thanksgiving is an important tradition in her family back in America, and she calls them each year to wish them a happy holiday. And she admits to occasionally having a craving for her mother’s corn pudding.

Dan says her twin daughters, 9, and son, 8, “have no idea” about Thanksgiving — she shouts over to them to ask if they have ever heard of the holiday. Her query is met with quizzical expressions until she asks the children in Hebrew if they are familiar with Chag HaHodaya.

Yes, they respond: They saw Zack and Cody celebrate it on the Disney Channel show “Suite Life.”

For Savren, Thanksgiving evokes warm memories.

“Thanksgiving was the one time when the whole family got together during the year,” she recalls, when all the aunts and uncles and cousins gathered in Boston to eat her mother’s turkey and her aunt’s sweet potatoes.

The Savrens enjoy having guests, often of many nationalities, at their Thanksgiving table.

This year’s guest list, which the Savrens host on Friday night because Savren works all day Thursday and cannot make all the food for that evening, includes an American family, an Israeli who grew up in Europe, a Dutchman and his American girlfriend.

Savren says the meal is most successful with other Americans “because they get it.”

An Israeli, for example, takes one look at the cranberry sauce, she says, and spends the rest of the meal pushing it around his plate.


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