This year, American Jews will talk turkey across the Hanukkah dinner table and perhaps play a few rounds of dreidel while the bird is being carved. Strangely, about the same time, the menorah’s lights will be lit. It’s a rare confluence—the simultaneous celebrations of the Jewish Festival of Lights and America’s cherished Thanksgiving. It won’t come again until the year 79,811.
Throughout the world, it’s axiomatic that American expatriates feel more American and less expat when Thanksgiving rolls around. Even for those in the Middle East by circumstance or design, scrambling for a taste of home more often than not features a turkey in the center of attention.
This week, though, with the rare coming-together of Hanukkah – normally perceived as the Jewish counterpart to Christmas – and Thanksgiving, the moniker “Thanksgivukkah” has sprung up along with the unusual challenge it presents to American Jews everywhere: the melding of two revered traditions.
In Israel, where an estimated 300,000 United States citizens reside, the American Jewish Committee has a tradition of mounting a Thanksgiving feast for those who hail from the States but who are presently serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) without benefit of the family base of support that is so much a part of the Israeli army experience. These so-called “Lone Soldiers” are treated to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, replete with turkey, trimmings and the ceremonial turkey-carving performed by someone from the ranks.
Asked what effect the oddity of a dual-holiday will have on its plans, AJC’s Ella Spivack told The Media Line, “We will be tying Thanksgiving’s inclusiveness together with the common theme of the miracle that occurred on the Festival of Lights: connecting Hanukkah with the common purposes of serving in the military; representing the state; and tying that service to American Jewry.”
Spivack explained that, “We want to find a point of commonality with our Jewish values and our Thanksgiving values of pluralism and acceptance. I think that just because we live in Israel we don’t have to leave behind our [American] identity… that’s one beauty of Israel.”
For Americans throughout the Middle East celebrating the holiday, Thanksgiving is a special time of unity. In Kabul, Afghanistan, Chief Warrant Officer Joshua Johnston’s thoughts will be divided between the town of Coldspring, Texas—a short distance north of Houston, population 853 – and what Johnston calls his “extended family,” the military.
“The leaders take the opportunity to really appreciate the soldiers. It makes us feel special and reminds us that we’re not alone, that we’re part of something bigger,” Johnston told The Media Line. “I have developed some of my best deployment memories around Thanksgiving and Christmas as we sat back and reflected on what we’ve accomplished together.”
Since Johnston deployed eight years ago, he has spent six Thanksgivings away from his wife and three young daughters. “It [being away from home] doesn’t really change the feeling,” Johnston explained. “It’s just when you stop and reflect like you would do for anything, your sense of country is heightened because you realize how lucky we are to live in the country that we do; to have our families at home safe; and able to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal in peace. It breaks your heart when you see some of the countries that we are in and the struggles that they go through.”
This year, the 51,000 American troops in Afghanistan are being provided with 70,000 pounds of turkey; 20,000 pies; and 1,700 gallons of eggnog along with an assortment of other holiday foods. According to military sources, the army spends about $1 million to provide the troops with Thanksgiving feasts – exclusive of the cost of delivering the food to 118 locations across Afghanistan. Beyond Afghanistan, the army provides holiday meals to more than 1.3 troops around the world.
“Part of the logistical issue is the fact that you have to start way before you have to provide the product,” Anthony Amendolia, operations chief for the Defense Logistics Agency for Europe and the Middle East told The Media Line. “We start in April to make sure that all of these Thanksgiving items are at their locations around the world. The time it takes to take the order; process; load the containers; and send them. That process takes sometimes six months.”
Amendolia noted that the DLA is also providing support for American servicemen and women in the Middle East stationed at diplomatic missions in Iraq, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, Qatar and elsewhere.
For Americans without the military’s support system, navigating their adopted countries to find a turkey and all the fixings can be a daunting task. But as the expat community in the Middle East has grown, getting food (and company) for Thanksgiving has become easier.
In Israel, finding a turkey is now less difficult than it was not-too-long-ago as everyone from word-of-mouth distributors to chain supermarkets have begun to provide whole birds for the holiday. At one time, it was an issue of whole birds not fitting into the small oven; or the cultural preference for cooking turkey parts rather than the entire bird.
“I remember how difficult it was when we moved here. I spoke no Hebrew, and the Israelis, 30 years ago, spoke very little English,” Carol Tillman, a turkey distributor and an English teacher at the Open University in Ra’anana told The Media Line. “I know how frustrated these people are. What I want to do is help them out because I can do it. I love it because I’m helping out on both sides. I’m helping out people in need, and I’m helping out the butchers sell turkeys.”
Tillman’s customers, who are mostly American, hear of her from their friends and acquaintances. This system keeps her numbers manageable and her interactions intimate.
“They’re thrilled, so thrilled,” Tillman said of her clients. “I get these emails, ‘Oh wow, I’m so glad that I heard about you!’ and ‘I was thrilled and we couldn’t believe it, and it’s so clean and it has no feathers!’”
While Americans immigrating to Israel have brought their holiday with them, Palestinian families with connections to the US have also adopted the holiday, albeit with their own regional twist.
“It has become commonplace for Palestinians that if they have a relative or an association with the United States that they end up making a turkey dinner around Thanksgiving,” Huda El-Jack, a Palestinian-American entrepreneur and the owner of Ramallah-based coffee chain Zamn told The Media Line. “The difference is that they will stuff the whole turkey ‘Middle Eastern-style’—with rice, ground beef, and nuts; like you would stuff lamb.”
The general manager of the five-star Movenpick Hotel in Ramallah told The Media Line that it will be hosting elegant private Thanksgiving dinners for some of its guests.
In Jerusalem, Hannah, a Lone Soldier from Florida, told The Media Line that she plans to attend an event that will feed 500 of her comrades-in-arms. “It would have been very lonely (without it),” she said.
Back in Afghanistan, Johnston agrees. He said that despite the challenge of delivering the holiday meals, all of the soldiers will have traditional meals, no matter how remote.
”For me it is not forgetting what it feels like to be the end customer. I was a cook myself, I know what it feels like. You don’t care how the food gets there, it just needs to get there.”
Johnston sees the day as unique in that it brings different levels of the military together.
For Tillman in Israel, delivering the turkey is the easy – if not the best—part.
“It’s probably seeing the moms and the kids, who say, ‘Oh wow, we got a turkey this year!’” Tillman said. “And they’re just so happy, and that to me is rewarding. I like to meet new people, and if I can make them happy by delivering a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving, that makes me happy too.”